The Persuasive Power of Swearing

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Light swearing at the start or end of a persuasive speech can help influence an audience.

Lack of passion can be fatal to our attempts to persuade others of our point of view. Even if all the right facts are trotted out in an intelligible order, even if the argument is unassailable, when the speaker doesn’t appear to believe it themselves, why should anyone else bother?

Show your passion, however, and people have one more emotional reason to come around to your point of view.

But how can we convince others of our conviction?

Up the intensity

One unconventional way is by using a little light swearing. The problem is that we run the risk of losing credibility and appearing unprofessional.

To see whether swearing can help change attitudes, Scherer and Sagarin (2006) divided 88 participants into three groups to watch one of three slightly different speeches. The only difference between the speeches was that one contained a mild swear word at the start:

“…lowering of tuition is not only a great idea, but damn it, also the most reasonable one for all parties involved.”

The second speech contained the ‘damn it’ at the end and the third had neither.

When participants’ attitudes were measured, they were most influenced by the speeches with the mild obscenity included, either at the beginning or the end.

It also emerged that the word ‘damn’ increased the audience’s perception of the speaker’s intensity, which was what lead to the increased levels of persuasion. On the other hand, swearing did not affect how the audience perceived the speaker’s credibility.

So it seems that light swearing can be useful, even in a relatively formal situation like a lecture. When you show some feeling, the audience notices, credits you with sincerity and takes your message to heart.

How far you can go is difficult to know. Certainly things have changed a lot. In the 1939 film Gone with the Wind, after Rhett Butler’s famous line “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”, the producer, David Selznick, was fined $5,000 for this ‘shocking’ outburst.

That was a long time ago but audiences are diverse and will respond in different ways. It’s likely that stronger or more persistent swearing would adversely affect credibility. But a little damn and blast is more likely to be seen as a genuine display of emotion, which is refreshing. If nothing else, swearing is persuasive because it’s human.

Image credit: Jeff Gill

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Published: 20 October 2010

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