A few years ago, I wrote a piece on LinkedIn in which I used a certain four-letter word that started with an f. I used the word sparingly (once) in a rather long piece, its placement measured and intentional.

I was surprised at the ferocity of the response. While most of those who read the piece didn't even blink at its addition (again, it was only used once, and the piece had a somewhat colloquial tone), some people took very strong offense to its inclusion.

Profanity has a long and storied tradition in society. Every culture has it. Each individual has a distinct relationship with it. Now, however, fascinating new research has put to rest the question of whether swearing like a sailor means you're a more honest shipmate:

Yes. It does.

Researchers out of the Department of Work and Psychology at Maastricht University completed a rather comprehensive study amusingly entitled, 'Frankly, we do give a damn: The relationship between profanity and honesty.'

The intention was to solve an age-old conflict in the realm of social science. Some believed that because profanity is a taboo, those who engage in it are more likely to break other social norms, as well (i.e., to lie). Others believed people who swear are more likely not only to be seen as authentic, but to actually be more authentic.

The results were definitive. Researchers completed three related studies, on interpersonal, societal, and social media levels. In every case, those who swear were found to be more honest than those who didn't.

To test on an individual level, researchers gave 276 individuals an Eysenck Personality Questionnaire to measure levels of honesty, and surveyed them to ask how often they used profanity. There was a clear and significant correlation between swearing and honesty--a fact that extended into the realm of social media, as well.

The team looked at 70,000 interactions on social media (Facebook), comparing the use of profanity in posts with levels of honesty marked in conversations. The conclusion? Again, those who swear are more honest.

To measure the macro level, the research team examined 2012 Integrity Analyses from 48 states in the United States, comparing them to the data on profanity from the Facebook study. Results showed that states that scored particularly high on profanity level (New Jersey--yes, it is empirically one of the swear-iest states in the union) also scored highest on governmental integrity. States that tend to avoid swearing (South Carolina) scored lower on both openness as well as governmental integrity.

While the researchers didn't explore the reasons for the correlation in depth, it seems logical to conclude that those with less compunction about swearing care less about what others think of them. This, in turn, means they likely filter themselves less, which means you're more likely to get an honest response from them.

In any case, it makes it easy to spot honest colleagues or potential new business partners.

Just look for the ones who don't give a duck.

Published on: Apr 20, 2017