When Kim Sears, the now-wife of tennis star Andy Murray, was caught on camera apparently mouthing off during the Australian Open earlier this year, it captured the public imagination so much so that the incident threatened to overshadow the battling Scot’s progress to the final.
Given how common swearing is these days, why did the media become obsessed with the incident? Is it possibly something to do with the idea that it is unexpected for a woman to swear quite so much in public? And what did this illuminate, if anything, about the personality of a woman whom the press previously considered demure?
Psychological research on swearing suggests that swearing might indeed be quite revealing. In an article entitled “The Science of Swearing” published by the Association for Psychological Science, Timothy Jay (Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts) and Kristin Janschewitz (Marist College)—who are together possibly the world’s leading experts on the psychology of cursing—confirm that swearing is positively associated with extraversion and the Type A personality.
The authors also point out swearing is associated with lower conscientiousness, agreeableness, sexual anxiety, and religiosity in personality.
Type A individuals tend to be competitive, with a constant sense of urgency leading to impatience, and they are self-critical with high work involvement. So Type As are easily ‘wound up’ and tend to overreact. They are also more likely to eventually suffer high blood pressure.
The authors also point out that swearing emerges by age two and by the time children enter school, they have a working vocabulary of 30 to 40 offensive words. By adulthood, swearing occurs at a rate of about 0.5 percent of one’s daily word output.
Gender Differences in Swearing
In the book, Gender and the Language of Religion, Professor Jay points out that research on gender and cursing confirms that men curse more than women; men use a larger vocabulary of curse words than women; and men use more offensive curse words than women (Jule Allyson, ed. Equinox Publishing 2005).
Timothy Jay cautions however, that women outnumber and out-swear men in some settings, like nursing homes. Timothy Jay points out that while men generally curse more in public than women, research indicates that the frequency gap between men’s and women’s swearing is decreasing.
In a study entitled “The Pragmatics of Swearing,” published in the Journal of Politeness Research, Professors Jay and Janschewitz point out that men are more likely than women to swear when frustrated or angry, while women are more likely than men to view swearing in anger as loss of control, and realize that swearing might jeopardize their relationships with others.
Men deploy more offensive language than women, especially in the company of other men, and the authors agree that gender plays a powerful role in swearing. For example, most people swear much more around listeners of the same gender than in mixed crowds.
Jay and Janschewitz point out in their paper, “The Science of Swearing” that as swearing has been shown to be associated with enhanced pain tolerance, this suggests swearing has a cathartic or release effect, which helps us endure frustration or pain. Frustration and pain probably characterise the roller coaster ride of the high stakes match Kim Sears was watching when she apparently released her torrent of swearing.
In a study entitled “Why Do Women Swear? An Exploration of Reasons for and Perceived Efficacy of Swearing in Dutch Female Students,” Eric Rassin and Peter Muris found that while women swear quite regularly (on average three times per day), because they want to express negative emotions, the women they studied realised that swearing is not a very fruitful reaction.
It might appear that women swear to express frustration and negative emotion rather as men do, but they may appear to be more insightful that it doesn’t necessarily get them closer to their goals. Women might be less proud of their swearing.
The study, published in the journal, Personality and Individual Differences from Erasmus University, The Netherlands, also found that swearing a lot in women was not associated with a lack of life satisfaction.
But unlike men, who might not care so much, or even might want to cultivate an image of machismo, women seem more concerned about the negative impact on relationships by swearing.
So psychologists might predict in the future we are going to see on camera a much more tight-lipped Kim Sears.
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