I like swearing and apparently, so do you. Scherer and Sagarin (2006) show in their experiment that swearing can increase the persuasiveness of a speech. You do have to have some initial sympathy for their argument, someone swearing whilst telling you to get hit by a car won’t make them more persuasive. On first glance, it would usually seem detrimental to a persuasive speech if the speaker swears during it for no important reason, since it makes it seem as if their emotions are affecting the way they think about the topic, and that they might not be thinking completely clearly about what they’re saying because of this, or that they just don’t care enough to control their language. Mulac (2009) found that more swearing during a persuasive speech lowers the speaker’s perceived Socio-Intellectual Status and Aesthetic Quality, and this would undoubtedly damage their persuasiveness, since they become generally less attractive.
Surprisingly, the emotional emphasis that swear words give is the likely reason given for the increase in perceived persuasiveness, since it strengthens the connection between the speaker and argument because of their ‘intensity’ (Scherer & Sagarin 2006). Swearing is taken to be a form of intense language, and intense language has been shown to affect source evaluation and hence attitude change. This is shown in the results of this experiment: the speeches with swear words influenced attitudes on the topic and perceived speaker intensity more than the control speech that contained no rudeness.
So, it’s a bit risky to swear when trying to be persuasive, but the pay-off is good: you alienate those who were leaning towards disagreement with you but persuade those who had at least a sense of understanding with you.
I’m not completely convinced by this experiment, because the word ‘damn’ is not seen as controversially as it once was, and could even be equated with ‘ARGH’, so it might be a stretch to say that all swearing is persuasive, just because saying ‘damn’ might be. Also, the participants were university students, who are probably exposed to swearing a lot more than other age groups and enjoy it more as part of normal speech, so you might want to avoid being persuasively rude to pretty much anyone else. Furthermore, the video they watched was inconsequential; they didn’t need to make an effective decision on the topic afterwards, such as by voting for a policy or candidate. They had no great motivation to think about it in a lot of detail and so would probably have found the swear word an enjoyable distraction rather than an electrifying, mustering victory of a word. I have no political feeling towards Cheney but found his vulgar comment mentioned in this article funny because of the way he phrased the insult, and therefore would be more open to listening to a speech by him. But that might just be because I need to grow the golly up.
Mulac, A. (1976). Effects of obscene language upon three dimensions of listener attitude. Communication Monographs, 43, 300-307.
Scherer, C. & Sagarin, B. (2006). Indecent influence: The positive effects of obscenity on persuasion. Social Influence, 1, 138-146.
By Alek Lagowski