Swearing Means You're More Likely To Be Honest

It’s science.

Image: John Christian Fjellestad

Are you a narc or a square? Stop reading. This post is for badboys only.

Coast clear? Okay.

According to social science, swearing is linked to both honesty and niceness. So if you’re the kind of person who might point out that, “There were no fucking paper towels” in the public bathroom, or “The goddamn bus” was late this morning, chances are you’re more sincere than someone who’d simply say “no paper towels” or “the bus.”

A joint study published by the University of Cambridge, Stanford University, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Maastricht University this month purports that swearing (online and in real life) is associated with honesty because “honest people get emotional, and emotional people swear.”

“There are two conflicting perspectives regarding the relationship between profanity and dishonesty. These two forms of norm-violating behavior share common causes, and are often considered to be positively related,” the study reads. “On the other hand, however, profanity is often used to express one’s genuine feelings, and could therefore be negatively related to dishonesty.”

In other words, we tend to swear when we’re in heightened emotional states, which makes people assume that swearing would be linked to irrational or deviant behavior—but this study explored the possibility that just the opposite is true: We swear when we’re too worked up to lie. Or more simply, if someone has the composure to lie to you, they’re probably not also emotionally worked up enough to swear. Those two states of mind might even be mutually exclusive in some cases.

Scientists tested this idea three different ways, and found that swearers “were far more consistent in keeping honest with other people” and “rarely lied to get out of difficult situations.” Moreover, “participants who swore less had a higher percentage of statuses deemed as ‘dishonest.’”

The explanation was that dishonest people subconsciously try to (1) dissociate themselves from the lie and therefore refrain from referring to themselves; (2) prefer concrete over abstract language when referring to others (using someone’s name instead of “he” or “she”); (3) are likely to feel discomfort by lying and therefore express more negative feelings; and (4) require more mental resources to obscure the lie and therefore end up using less cognitively demanding language, which is characterized by a lower frequency of exclusive words and a higher frequency of motion verbs.

So basically: liars use vague, pleasing language and honest people use specific, emotional language. Tell that to your stepdad.