In 1936, well before the self-help publishing phenomenon took off, and a good three-quarters of a century before the idea of emotional intelligence --or "EQ" --became a household term, Dale Carnegie published a book that he hoped would help people become more influential by being more likeable.

What started as a series of lectures on how to be a better public speaker at the YMCA on 125th street in New York City, and then at Carnegie Hall, his How to Win Friends and Influence People went on to become one of the bestselling self-help books of all time. The book has sold more than 30 million copies world-wide, and it continues to rank among the top books read each week on Amazon.

In-between suggestions to smile, remember a person's name, and be a good listener, one piece of advice Carnegie never gave was to use foul language as a strategy for making friends. But according to new research, this might actually be an effective tactic if you want to build influence and expand your network.

In "You Are Here," an excellent new video series from The Atlantic, staff writer Olga Khazan highlights several studies that point to the effectiveness of using four-letter words and other linguistic devices from the gutter as a way to establish trust and rapport with other people.

"Part of the appeal of swear words is that they make you sound like you're using a secret code language," says Khazan. "The psychological concept for this is called 'covert prestige.' This is where you try to appeal to a narrow group by using special language tailored just to them."

Ever curse the boss with your co-workers near the coffee machine? "In a study published last year, dozens of lawyers, doctors, and executives told researchers they use swearing to get attention or convey urgency and to develop friendships. Women use swearing to demonstrate their assertiveness in male dominated offices or to earn respect from their male colleagues."

Swearing also works in blue collar settings, says Khazan. "A study of a soap factory in New Zealand found that workers' 'f-bombs' are a way to say, essentially, 'I know you so well I can be rude to you'."

In today's divisive political climate, it's not hard to be exposed to pejorative language of the four-letter kind when listening to  a politician's attacks on his or her opponents. "When people are trying to be persuasive, swearing can help them drive their point home. One study of Italians found that when fictional political candidates swore in a blog post voters like them more because they were seen as more informal."

And when you want to make sure your audience knows just how you feel about an issue, try sprinkling in a four-letter word: "Past studies also showed that saying 'damn' in a speech about college tuition made the speaker seem more persuasive", says Khazan.

Too much of a good thing can backfire, however. "Even though profanity can be a powerful tool to connect with people and spice up your speech, like any good seasoning, it can start to lose its effect when there's way too much of it," warns Khazan.

Published on: Sep 18, 2017
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