Some studies seem to suggest that swearing uses parts of the brain not generally involved in regular speech–parts of the brain that have a role in emotion and instinct. Some people have made the assertion that chimpanzees swear, though how you could know that, I’m not sure. But at any rate, it seems entirely possible that what we call “swearing” is a kind of speech distinct from other speech–not just in the way we categorize it, but in the way our brains process it.
So you’d think people would just, you know, swear. But it’s more complicated than that. In the US at least there are all kinds of rules about who swears and when.* So even if we accept that swearing is a speech with a distinct neurological difference from other speech, it’s also clear that it intersects very strongly with culture, sometimes in complicated ways.
Well, often in complicated ways, if you ask me. Those rules about who swears and when? I find them kind of weird and interesting. Now, I grew up in a family that had a very relaxed attitude toward swearing, and my parents (nearly always) gave me any information I wanted in a very straightforward fashion. But outside our family? Apparently children (including, apparently, adolescents) were not to swear in front of adults–this was always expressed as some variant of “good children don’t swear” or else “we don’t use words like that,” though how any grownup could actually say either thing with a straight face was a mystery to me. And adults (who I knew damn well swore more or less frequently) were not to swear in front of children.
Once I started working, there were additional wrinkles to it. My first job was bussing tables at a pancake joint. Outside the building, I knew that at least some of my co-workers swore freely and fluently, but at work? It was clear that one never, ever swore in front of customers, nor did one ever, ever swear in earshot of the boss. If the place was closed (a rarity, we only closed on single evening of the week) or empty of customers (also a rarity, it was–still is–a popular place to get pancakes) then there was a sort of gray area. But it was pretty obvious that status and power were involved. The boss could fire you. The customers could complain and cause you to be fired. If they, themselves, dropped a few profanities as they ate their blueberry waffles, their server might be offended, but could not express it. She might, if there was a spare second, frown and mutter disapproval back in the kitchen, but there would be no real consequences for a customer dropping a few curse words in her hearing. These rules remained the same for every food service job I took. Looking around, it became pretty clear that power and status were a pretty good determiner of who you could or couldn’t swear in front of. And that while I didn’t care if some customer swore incidentally while I was taking away their syrup-covered plates, some of my co-workers took it as disrespectful, but had no power to protest. That was interesting.
Then I got a job as a rodman on a land surveying crew.** The company was small, and the boss liked to pretend he was pals with his few employees. Some mild swearing was perfectly fine. Out in the field, the swearing generally remained mild. It was another gray area, in fact. Sometimes we were performing the sort of survey required for a mortgage, in which case we were working in a residential area and there might be people around to complain. But other times we were staking out the corners of not-yet-existent buildings, so that when a foundation was poured it would be in the right place.*** Those times, we were on construction sites. So either nobody was around, or construction workers were. And sometimes they could be a little weird about swearing in front of me, if they noticed me. Which they didn’t always.
You’d think this was all about respect–after all, one generally expressed rule about swearing is that you don’t do it in front of women or children (though, you know, the servers at the pancake house were all women, and all the bussers were high school girls) and I’d already concluded that who you could swear in front of was at least partially about status.
But then one day, instead of going out in the field (actually I couldn’t go out, my crew chief was still laid up from the whole horsefly incident) my boss sent me to a meeting. I was, it turned out, the only woman in the room at this meeting. This was a road-widening project that had been vexed by all kinds of disagreements and delays. Most recently, some work had not been done for way too long, and nothing could move forward until it did. The person whose job it was to make sure it got done did not take the criticism well, but insisted it was the surveyor’s fault. We had not sent him the numbers he needed.
As it happened, I had made those measurements myself, two weeks previously, and with my own hands I had written the numbers down on the appropriate sheet and faxed it to him. (Yes, I am that old.) Upon investigation, the fax was found in the gentleman’s folder. Awkward!
After the meeting, in the few moments before everyone left, there was some polite, outwardly jovial chatting about the frustrations of the project and Mr I Don’t Have Those Numbers Yet mentioned something that hadn’t gone right and then turned to me, with a smirk, and said, “But I won’t say what I thought, because there’s a lady present!”
This was the first time I had ever seen the supposed respect of not swearing in front of someone turned into a means to put someone in their place. All right, I had shown him up over the cut sheet, but I wasn’t one of the guys and don’t forget it.****
I smiled and said something polite. I had been a waitress. I could smile brightly through nearly anything.
I thought about it a lot, though. You don’t swear in front of women (well, ladies. You can swear in front of women who aren’t ladies!) and children, not because they’re higher status or more powerful, but because they’re protected minors. It’s kind of paradoxical, but there it is. In one case “respect and courtesy” is a matter of deference, and in another it’s a matter of “protection.” And women–the right sort of women, anyway, the kind who don’t, themselves, swear–are like children, they need to be protected from swearing.
The converse of that is that swearing could theoretically mark you as a full adult. If you are permitted to swear, or to be sworn in front of, you are not one of those protected minors. In that case, the prohibition on swearing in front of women and children (and the classing of women and children who swear as “not ladies” or “not good children” rather than “recognized adults who engage in adult speech”) looks more like a means to exclude certain people from adult status, even (particularly?) if they engage in behaviors that ought to mark them as an adult.
I don’t really draw any particular conclusions from that. I don’t have a grand theory of swearing or anything. I just find it really interesting, how something apparently as basic as a particular sort of emotionally charged utterance gets tied up so firmly with attitudes toward status, some of which seem paradoxical but probably aren’t.
*And of course, some words are shocking to some and quite inoffensive to others–sometimes others from pretty much the same linguistic and cultural background.
**No, I’m not a man. To make things even weirder, I worked on a two person crew, and so the crew chief was also the “instrument man.” But he much preferred to place the rod himself, and have the rodman run the instrument. Which made both names inaccurate.
***This could be fairly high stakes. If a foundation turned out to be in the wrong place the whole thing might have to be dug out and poured again. I have several remembered moments of pride from the land surveying job, and one of them is running the instrument to stake out a house that had been planned with less than a tenth of a foot between it and the legally allowed building lines. There’s always a bit of slop between measuring and setting stakes and then pouring, so when you go back to shoot the foundation and be sure it’s where it should be, it’s never just exactly where you placed it. It generally doesn’t have to be really, really exact, it just has to be good enough. But this job was a dicey one. We spent a lot of time over it, the crew chief using nails instead of stakes, and asking me to check the numbers several times. It was the first time he was obviously nervous about me being on the instrument, but the exact placement of those nails was also an issue, so he took that end.
When we went back to shoot the foundation, it was only a hundredth of a foot off where it was supposed to be. He looked at the numbers and said, “I know I told you to be exact, but damn!” Interestingly, that was one of the only times he ever swore in front of me. Even when you’d think he might have, with justification, he generally didn’t. Which reminds me. Protip: when you’re cutting brush with a machete (so that the instrument has line of sight) and a horsefly lands on your other hand and bites you? Don’t forget that you’re holding the machete. He didn’t even swear that day. (It wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I got some ice out of our water cooler to put on his hand, and then I packed the equipment back up and drove him to the hospital and he got stitches. It turned out okay. But don’t ever do that, yourself.)
****”But,” some might protest, “maybe he was just being polite and making a little joke!” Well, you didn’t see that smirk, or feel the tension earlier when that fax turned up. And besides, even if he was just unwilling to swear in front of me out of respect, he could easily have avoided it without very pointedly drawing attention to it. “I was so angry!” or similar. No, he wanted to draw my attention to the fact that he would have spoken more frankly, and it was only my presence that restrained him. The “joke” also invited the others present to appreciate my outsider status, and ratify it by laughing because yes, of course, we’d be swearing if she wasn’t here. It was no big trauma for me, really–I didn’t care if I was “one of them” or not. I was usually in the field anyway, and besides the reason the boss had sent me to this meeting was because he was in the middle of a personal-life meltdown and was dropping responsibilities left and right. A month later the survey company was out of business and I was doing temporary office work, and the dynamics around swearing in that milieu is a whole other thing again. But it was interesting and I’ve never forgotten it.