There have been lots of studies that show that women avoid swearing, and still more that show that they use just as many swearwords as men depending on age, social class, and whether or not they’re in mixed company. More on this anon, but it’s worth mentioning that a 1987 study by Barbara Risch uncovered one of the reasons why these studies should give such confusing results: Risch was one of the first female researchers to ask an all-female group to talk about their use of swearwords. It seems that women are more likely to swear around other women than around men so male researchers consistently underestimate women’s use of bad language!

But it seems that we still carry around the social conditioning that “nice girls” don’t swear (again, more on this anon). I wouldn’t mind so much – it can be fun to bust a stereotype with a well-timed burst of profanity – but there is a group of women for whom this belief has damaging consequences: the chronically and seriously ill.

Researchers from the University of Arizona equipped two groups of female volunteers with voice-activated recorders. One group was made up of women with the painful symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, the other group was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. The researchers wanted to know if the effect of swearing on pain tolerance meant that the women who swore more would cope better. The team decided to measure a set of other variables too, including the women’s levels of depression, and the amount of social support they received.

The researchers reached a depressing conclusion: the women who swore in front of their friends were less likely to get emotional support from their friends, and more likely to suffer depression as a consequence. The researchers ruled out the effect of different levels of pain, and they also ruled out the possibility that swearing was somehow directly linked to depression (women who swore the same amount, but on their own, retained their levels of friendship and support and suffered less depression). To be clear, these women weren’t swearing at their friends – they were mostly using bad language to vent their frustration. Nevertheless, their friends withdrew as a consequence.

The researchers pointed out that they were unlikely to have found this effect among men, where numerous studies have shown that swearing can play a role in building friendships. Specifically, women in middle age were likely to alienate the friends they needed to see them through the difficult times because they “violated gender and age norms” – or to put it simply, they didn’t behave the way their friends expected women to behave. The study, according to the authors, “highlights a potential cost of swearing – it can undermine psychological adjustment, possibly via repelling social support.” Left to cope alone, these women were more likely to struggle with depression.

So the next time you hear a female friend curse up a storm, try not to judge her by her language. She might need your support now more than ever.

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