Explaining Expletivists

You know those people who use curse words not to insult anyone but to emphasize their message? Like a respected businessman who says motherf%$er! every few minutes in a conversation about oil futures or hiring an assistant or saving panda bears. Or a young mother of three living in a posh neighborhood who spices up her endless blurb about shopping and nail salons and housemaids with an occasional f-bomb.

I’ve been puzzled by this behavior for years. Why did these words, which cause a strong, often negative reaction in many people become such a common part of our language? Thinking about this it dawned on me that this is just a defense mechanism like being cynical or condescending. They swear in order to hide something. I’m not talking about people who suffer from Tourette syndrome (or more accurately, Coprolalia) – just normative folks who use expletives often, hiding fears or insecurities. By revealing part of their inner self and exposing their weakness they give us an opportunity to leverage what we have just learned about them.

One option is to help them. Try to figure out what’s on their mind, what’s bothering them, intimidating them, or stressing them out. Then see how you can help by making it easier for them to handle the situation. Offering a solution is probably the wrong thing to do – just be a good listener.

You can use your newly gained understanding to disarm them, helping them calm down. It might be that they got used to cussing all day and are completely oblivious to the root cause. It is down there somewhere, though, and if you can help them pinpoint it you would do them a great favor.

Another option is to use their weakness to your benefit. In a negotiation setting, when the other side utters the F word, try to quickly figure out what they are insecure about – or better – why they are insecure about it. They are probably angry (or pretending to be), banging on the table and trying to intimidate you into submission. Don’t give up; the curse word is your trigger. Leverage what your opponent just revealed about themselves and get a leg up on them.

Whatever you do remember that if you’re an expletivist yourself others can use these techniques against you, so you better learn to control yourself before they do.

Edit: Oh fuck, I may have been totally wrong about all this. This research found “a consistent positive relationship between profanity and honesty; profanity was associated with less lying and deception at the individual level, and with higher integrity at the society level.”