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If Swearing is Wrong, Why Does it Feel so Right?

10 Feb

It was my first day on assignment at the refinery and I walked into the control room, escorted by a fellow engineer who was showing me around.  We approached one of the operators and, before my host could speak, the man said, “Who’s this c#@t?”  I laughed and was not fazed a bit, for several reasons.  First, I had spent a lot of time in refineries by then, so swearing was not unusual and my skin was thick.  Second, this was Australia, so, as in the U.K., the c-word is not meant to be as offensive as in the U.S.  And finally, this man had never met me, so I knew exactly what this brief sentence really meant – “We’ve worked hard here to get this unit running well, so don’t come in here and disrespect us and screw things up.”  That operator was one of the best, and became one of my strongest allies in that plant.

kid middle finger

My inner boy. Isn't he cute?

I’m as guilty as anyone (more-so, really) of letting expletives fly during times of frustration, or perhaps when present company allows for complete openness.  But why do we swear, and how do we know that are intentions will be understood?  So many people, more virtuous than I, are quick to dismiss swearing as base and a sign of ignorance, but there seems to be much more to it.

The urge to swear is universal, crossing over into all cultures and languages.  Natalie Angier, in her article entitled Almost Before We Spoke, We Swore, cites examples of swearing throughout history, dating back to the earliest writings 5000 years ago.  She also references colorful language used by Shakespeare, and even presents a quotation from the King James version of the bible – “…hath he not sent me to the men which sit on the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss…”(II Kings 18:27).  Chimpanzees, she continues, also exhibit vocal tirades during confrontations as an alternative to physical attacks.

Timothy Jay, a psychology researcher and author, claims that we use swear words 0.3% to 0.7% of the time, which is small, but it is significant when you consider that common personal pronouns (e.g. I, we, you, he, she, it, they, etc.) occur about 1% of the time in speech.  According John Grohol, also a psychology researcher, we tend to swear more when among friends, and it is more common for people who are extroverted and for people with Type-A personalities.  Also, men are more likely to swear than women.  Even American Sign Language (ASL) is rich with a complete offering of gestures for swearing, as described in this Wikipedia® article and shown in this Youtube® video.

Apparently, the main reason we swear is to express emotion, according to this ABC News video featuring Timothy Jay.  Our expressions of frustration, anger, and passion seem to be particularly amplified when we add a swear word for emphasis.  It’s also plausible that swearing can be useful in persuasion, as discussed by Jeremy Bean, author of PsyBlog.  He says, “Light swearing at the start or end of a persuasive speech can help influence an audience.”  Finally, studies showing that swearing can reduce our sense of pain are cited by John Grohol, and also in another article entitled Swearing in small doses can reduce physical pain, research finds.  In the piece from ABC News, swearing is said to relieve tension by providing a cathartic release.

Mythbusters swearing

Kari Byron of Mythbusters finds relief in swearing.

This leads us to a common theme in my essays, which is our behavior has a substantial physiological connection.  This article, quoting information from the book Blue Streak by Richard Dooling, cites research indicating that swearing comes from a different part of the brain than normal speech.  This same research is referenced in another article on linguistic phonology that explains that language resides in the left side of the brain, while swearing originates in the Supplementary Motor Cortex in the center of the brain, the same place that sobbing, laughter, moaning, and shouting in pain reside.  Neurobiologist William Calvin is also referenced in that article, who maintains that monkey vocalizations (e.g. barks, chattering, and cries) also emerge from this part of the brain, and are associated with emotional kinds of utterances.  People suffering from frontal lobe dementia are also sometimes prone to swearing (see for example, and some people that have suffered a stroke or Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) have experienced episodes of uncontrollable swearing (see for example Questions About Traumatic Brain Injury Answered).  By the way, only 10% of Tourette’s patients exhibit coprolalia, which is involuntary swearing or utterances of inappropriate remarks, yet they generate the most interest and have defined the syndrome in the general public.A-hole in ASL

The absurdity, then, is not that we swear, it is that language seems woefully inadequate for effective communication in many situations.  We constantly find it necessary to resort to additional techniques to express ourselves, so swearing, along with hand gestures, tonal inflections, volume, and body language, augment our communications to help us better express our intentions.  And those people that immediately dismiss you because you swore need to learn to listen more carefully since they are missing the true message and diminishing the potential for productive interaction.  I swear because I’m bonding with you, a%&hole!

Anthropomorphism: Maybe Cows Really Do Stand Upright When We’re not Looking

25 Oct

I know my dog loves me deeply.  Why else would he crap on my pillow when he doesn’t get enough attention?  At least that is my anthropocentric interpretation.

Gary Laron's Cows - from 'The Far Side'

Gary Laron's Cows - from 'The Far Side'

There are countless examples of our tendency to attribute human characteristics to animals, objects, and natural phenomena.  From storybook characters, to political satire, to hurricances, we constantly resort to human experiences and feelings to describe and explain the world around us.  Gary Larson, the acclaimed cartoonist that brought us “The Far Side”, adroitly uses anthropomorphism “to create an epistemological mirror in which we may witness, while we eat our breakfast, our own supposedly scientific knowledge, our own fears, stupidity, and lack of instinctual knowledge”, as David Lavery puts it in his essay entitled Aesop After Darwin: The Radical Anthropomorphism of “The Far Side”Lavery concludes by observing “To be human… is, quite simply, to be unnatural, sometimes ridiculous.”

It’s easy to ridicule anthropomorphism as yet another human foible, but many studies have supported the notion that animals have legitimate emotions, similar to humans.  For example, Stefan Anitei recounts in her article Human Behavior Found in Animals an observation by researchers in which a wolf limped back to its den after suffering a deep wound to its shoulder.  For several days afterward, the researchers observed another black male wolf entering the den and regurgitating large chunks of meat for the incapacitated animal, repeating this behavior until the wounded individual could rejoin the pack.  Sarah Etter, at, states that “All mammals, including dogs, have a ‘pleasure center’ in their brains that is stimulated by dopamine, the chemical that regulates feelings of happiness.”  Since this brain chemistry is the same in humans, she speculates, it is reasonable for us to assume that animals and humans share emotional similarities.  Etter goes on to quote the esteemed primatologist Jane Goodall as saying “From a behavioral perspective, it only makes sense that animals would experience emotions … Social animals must be able to read other animals in their society and must be able to maintain social bonds.”  Indeed in comparative psychology and ethology, animal behavioral studies have been used extensively to better understand human interactions (see, for example, this article at

Despite this, we can sometimes go too far.  In the blog, an open forum for the public to present their queries to other visitors, one contributor questions if her excessive empathy toward inanimate objects is ‘weird’.  For example, she cried for a Christmas tree erected in a town that was criticized by the citizens as being ‘shabby’, and ‘a poor excuse for a tree’.  Respondents also contributed examples, including a person who “used to make beds for my various writing implements from tissues, lest they have to be subjected to the cold of the desk”.  At, a support website for people and families with autism and other neurological differences, excessive empathy for animals and objects is cited as being common within this community, as shown in this forum thread.  In nearly all of the cases, though, this tendency to over empathize did not usually negatively impact their ability to function in their daily lives.

Being the fickle creatures that we are, humans seem to be selective when it comes to anthropomorphizing.  Rick Nauert, at, summarizes in his review article that “An entity is more likely to be anthropomorphized if it appears to have many traits similar to those of humans (for example, through humanlike movements or physical features such as a face).”  He also speculates that lack of social connections with other people “might motivate lonely individuals to seek out connections from nonhuman items.”  A. Horowitz, in an excerpt from the Encyclopedia of Human-Animal Interactions, theorizes that anthropomorphism is a mechanism to bring familiarity to an uncertain world.  A child, he states, “uses animism… to make sense of the sensory chaos of his environment…”  Horowitz also cites human similarities as being an important characteristics of anthropomorphizing, and uses frogs as an example of a creature with poor human similarities.  Frogs, therefore, are good candidates for the dissecting table in biology classes, due to the lack of empathy they garner from the pupils.

A curiosity is why we seem much less likely to zoomorphize, which is the opposite tendency – that is, to view an object or human being as having animal features and characteristics.  After all, we are just animals, sharing much of the same brain biology as other mammals.  Instinct, which is an accepted trait in animals, has become an unacceptable explanation for any human behavior.  Compelling examples in animals such as migration, imprinting, and body language do not seem to have corresponding analogs in the human world.  In the WikiPedia article on this subject, the psychology establishment has gone from accepting 4000 instinctual characteristics for humans at the end of the 19th century, to being superfluous in the study of human behavior during modern times.

Wilfred on FX

Wilfred on FX

In any case, I will continue to interpret my dog’s behavior as if he was a human child.  And I will continue to believe that he loves me, which some authors dispute.  In her article, Etter quotes Fred Metzger, a veterinarian and guest lecturer at Penn State, as insisting that animals do not love in the same sense as humans.  Dogs, he says, make emotional bonds with anyone that can provide them something in return.  “If we moved our dogs to our neighbor’s house,” he asserts, “and that neighbor gave the dogs as much as we gave them and in the same motivational forms, I believe our dogs would adapt to the new life and would become as loyal to the neighbor as they were to us.”  This sounds a lot like how people describe their ex-wife or ex-husband… hmmmm.

Cindy Brady Syndrome

17 Aug

Jan Brady With WigJan! Jan! Jan!  Am I the only one tired of middle children bemoaning their status, as if it was a birth defect for which they should be perpetually pitied?  I believe that birth order does indeed impact our lives, but there are down sides for each sibling rank, not just the Jan Bradys of the world.

I have been sensitive to this issue for a long time since one of my brothers, a middle child, has voiced complaints about his position for quite some time.  Several years ago, during one of his whining sessions, I decided that an apt nickname for him would be ‘Jan’.  He was not happy with this moniker, but our eldest brother and I found it endlessly amusing, adding to our arsenal of jibes that we use to keep our sibling in his place.

This affliction is officially known as Middle Child Syndrome, and is also drolly referred to as ‘Jan Brady Syndrome’.  A search of the web and other blogs will produce hundreds of articles on this subject (see for example Seven angels, four kids, one familyLarger Families, The World Outside, and Roland’s Ramblings), so please take a look at these sources.  The Middle Child Personality blog, for example, claims that middle children are prone to low self-esteem, jealousy, and a desire to seek attention and approval.   Additionally, an article by Bègue and Roché asserts that there is evidence that middle children are more likely to be juvenile delinquents.  However, others point out that ‘middles’ are more likely to branch out, away from parental expectations, creating their own path on which they thrive and excel.  Indeed, the middle children of my family have done well, financially better off than or equal to their oldest and youngest brothers.

Bègue and Roché go on to conclude that their observed differences due to birth order, or ordinal position, are partly an artifact of “differential parental control” – Duh!!!  And the Middle Child Personality blog cites “identity crisis and lack of emotional support” as possible causes.  Still others, like Judith Rich Harris, a psychology researcher, believe that birth order personality effects are only important within the dynamics of the family, and not a significant factor otherwise in life.  All agree, though, that there are many other factors such as gender, social/economic status, and genetics that influence our personality much more substantially than birth order.

Firstborns are also impacted by their ordinal position, and a review article by Dattner Consulting cites studies showing that they tend to enforce the status quo, often seeking to fulfill the expectations of their parents, while emphasizing rules, authority, and tradition.  They also tend to be less open-minded and structure-oriented.  On the positive side, firstborns are often more intelligent, and exhibit excellent leadership traits, which is especially true for firstborn women, and they are over-represented in the population of world leaders.  And, of course, firstborns generally are not forced to wear hand-me-downs.

Cindy Brady UnhappyAs for myself, I am a ‘Cindy’.  Apparently, my kind are spoiled, have no sense of responsibility, and suffer from inferiority complexes.  Lastborns are under-represented in the population of world leaders, and we tend to be less intelligent since we do not have younger siblings with whom to explicate our knowledge base, which is called the “Tutor Effect”.  But wait, there’s more.  Lastborn males with older brothers are also more likely to be homosexual, with each older brother increasing a man’s odds of being gay by 28-48%, WTF!?!   (see “Fraternal Birth Order and Male Sexual Orientation” in Wikipedia).   There may be a biological basis for this, having to do with male fetuses producing an antigen in the womb, inducing the mother to produce antibodies that impact future male babies.  Screwed again by my older brothers!

Therefore, I suffer from ‘Cindy Brady Syndrome’, and deserve sympathy for enduring such regrettable circumstances, due to no fault of my own.  To quote the Marcia Brady character in A Very Brady Sequel, “This is all Jan’s fault!”

All Swans are White, I Swear!

29 Jul

Nassim Nicholas Taleb“Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”  This quote, attributed to several personalities including Niels Bohr and Yogi Berra, seems to sum up what we all would attest to know.  However, just as the cost of living has not affected its popularity, the necessity to conjecture is unavoidable.  Humans are constantly processing information and developing correlations and hypotheses to explain the world around them, yet we are surprisingly bad at it.

In Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book The Black Swan, he preaches the foibles of speculation and cautions that we need to hedge our interests against the unexpected.  He uses black swans as an example since most human beings historically would be quick to postulate that all swans are white, and they might even be willing to accept financial risk to back such a claim given that their extensive experience seems to prove their theory.  Central to this weakness in human nature is what Taleb calls the confirmation bias.  This is the tendency we have to formulate a hypothesis, and then look for evidence that proves our theory, rather than look for examples that disprove it.  Several bloggers have reviewed this book (see for example Think Inside the Cube, Panarama of the Mountains, and Quasi-Coherent), so be sure to read what they have to say.  What made this book so important to me, though, are the extensive examples of real world situations and vast bibliography of institutional experiments that illustrate how wrong our instincts can be.

The need to conjecture seems rooted in the fact that we have limited resources available to gather information, store it, and retrieve it.  To facilitate this process, humans attempt to compress the data by recognizing patterns, rather than trying to absorb every digit of detail.  This leads to the narrative fallacy, in Taleb’s words, where we try to create a coherent story to summarize our observations.  For example, if a child is shown a photograph of a person and told that he is a member of a larger group, and then asked to describe the other members of the group, he is likely to get some things right, but fail in other areas.  Typically, children would assume that the other members of the group would share the same language, which is reasonable, and somehow the children would avoid the assumption that all members were the same height and weight.  However, the children would often predict that all members shared the same skin color, which was a brash extrapolation.  Studies of split-brain patients, individuals who have had their corpus callosum severed to disconnect the two sides of the brain, indicate that this causality processing resides in the left hemisphere of a right handed person, emphasizing that there are significant biological factors that influence our reasoning.  Additionally, patients having higher concentrations of dopamine, which regulates moods and lowers skepticism, are found to be more prone to developing wild extrapolations of patterns.

More troubling than our tendency to formulate and speculate, is our inability to accurately gauge our level of accuracy.  For example, a group may be asked to estimate the number of books at their local library.  Instead of an exact number, they are asked to provide a range in which the true value resides, within a 98% level of confidence.  The estimates, it turns out, are wrong by at least an order of magnitude larger than ideal 2%, indicating that we generally are far too confident in our estimates.  Surprisingly, additional experiments showed that the more information we have, the more likely we are to overestimate the accuracy of our predictions.  Therefore, more data and more knowledge actually increase the likelihood that you would be wrong since overconfidence would lead you to estimate ranges that were too narrow.Black Swan Bird

  “The future is not what it used to be,” is another quote that applies here, also often attributed to Yogi Berra, but is of dubious origin.  So, please, be mindful of your assumptions, particularly when making important life decisions.  And, by the way, black swans are native to Australia, where I had the good fortune to see them in the wild when I lived near Melbourne in the mid-90’s.

Woody Allen and Multiple Selves

27 Jul

Woody Allen Zelig movie posterBefore starting his long career writing, directing, and starring in movies, Woody Allen was a stand-up comic.  And, by chance, I happened to catch a snippet from his act on the radio where he made a joke that has stayed with me for several decades.  True to his neurotic persona, the joke went something like this, “I went to college, briefly, but I was kicked out for cheating on a metaphysics exam… I was caught looking into the soul of the guy next to me.”  His delivery was much better, of course, but this simple quip emphasizes the reality that we all look to others to help shape our concept of ourselves.

Social psychologists have performed numerous experiments to study this condition of human nature, and they have shown that others can influence our self-concept either directly through their behavior towards us, or indirectly as we compare ourselves to those that we observe.  In the first case, who hasn’t had their self-esteem boosted or dashed by a comment or facial expression from a parent, spouse, teacher, boss, etc.  As an example of the latter, I feel emasculated in the gym when I see some buff macho man bench press 300 pounds, but later I will stand with my chest out and my hands on my hips like superman after swinging my 3 year old grandson around in circles.  When we walk into a bar, each of us evaluates how we will be perceived.  Men check out the women to determine if they have a chance.  Women check out the women to determine if they have a better chance.

Woody Allen's Zelig as an IndianTaking this further, it seems that we also exhibit different personal characteristics depending on our environment.  Apparently, our self-concept is different at home than it is at work, or when we are on a date, or playing sports, and so on.  I know this to be true since I am generally a very quiet person in most social situations.  I was the youngest of four boys, so I found it difficult to get a word in growing up, and, being less experienced, had less to contribute anyway.  However, in a few situations I find that I cannot shut up.  This is usually when I find that I am viewed as the expert in the room on a particular subject, or when I am among good friends, with whom I am completely comfortable and feel to be of equal standing.

The accomplished Mr. Allen again provides insight into this phenomena, as his 1983 film Zelig addresses this subject in a very humorous manner.  The movie is a mockumentary about a man that has the ability to change his appearance, speech, and demeanor to fit in with whomever he is interacting with.  Through hypnoses, his psychiatrist, played by Mia Farrow (yes, this was a long time ago), reveals that this disorder is the result of his strong yearning for approval from those around him.  If you haven’t seen the film, please give yourself a treat and watch it.

My Friend Tourette

18 Jul

Image of Georges Gilles de la TouretteMy wife swears that I have a mild form of Tourette Syndrome, as I occasionally blurt out an expletive for no apparent reason.  This only occurs while relaxing in the privacy of our home, usually when my mind wanders while watching television.  Therefore, this affliction has not been a major factor in my life, and I came to realize that these events were the result of reliving an unpleasant situation in my past, brought to mind by some minor similarity on screen.  This was just another manifestation, I further realized, of my personal insecurities, which perpetually conflict my soul as I encounter even the smallest adversity.  Fortunately, I can take solace since I am not alone, and insecurities are a fundamental condition the human mind.

The influence of insecurities on human nature is perhaps most evident at school or in the workplace, as these places are perceived to have a disproportionate impact on our existence.  Strangely, for me, it is precisely in these environments where I excel, rarely getting stuck in the quagmire of jealousies and gossip.  Instead, it is situations involving large groups of strangers that are my Waterloo.  Why would anyone want to talk to me, and vice versa?  I have a nagging proclivity to require any conversation to have a purpose.  It does not need to be much, a discussion about how to kill weeds in my lawn perhaps, but something tangible none the less.

Each of us endures our own personal hell, and mine is far more manageable than most, I believe.  But I continue to reflect on human nature, hoping to find the best balance in life between the necessity to be productive, and the desire to nurture the soul.  I have mostly enjoyed my journey, but still find myself reciting the same mantra, “Are we there yet?”  My destination is not a physical location, but rather a goal to become unbreakable, both financially and emotionally.  Unfortunately, though, I fear the distance is too far, and my soul will never be content. I am reminded of Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise (c. 450 B.C.).  If Achilles and the tortoise were to race, and the tortoise was given a head start of 100 feet, Achilles could never catch him.  As the tortoise moved 1 foot, Achilles would cover 100 feet, still 1 foot behind.  While Achilles ran that 1 foot distance to catch up, the tortoise would move forward 0.01 foot.  As Achilles tried to close the gap and ran 0.01 foot more, the tortoise would still continue maintain his lead by another 0.0001 feet, and so on.

And that is how I feel, at times.  We are confounded by a tangle of infinities that eliminate any possibility of having complete control over our existence.  Therefore, our actions are only part of the equation, and it is how we react to the world that has as much, or more, impact on our lives.  These themes will show up in this blog, so check back often and subscribe.    My books also touch on these subjects, so check them out if you find interest in this sort of thing.