Of the most entertaining moments in the Hindi film Jab We Met is when the bubbly protagonist, played by Kareena Kapoor, pours out her frustration at the boy who dumped her with an almost unending string of cuss words. The words may have been edited out in a series of long beeps and in the audience’s laughter, but not the message. Cursing had done the trick for the heroine who was smiling once again.
Is it that simple in real life too? Curse your way out of frustration and relieve stress and tension? Perhaps, if studies and doctors are to be believed. But there are societal norms one must follow, they say.
Keep BP in check
People who vent their anger and frustration by screaming and shouting at people generally suffer from high BP. Right? Not always. Dr Murali Raj, head of department, psychiatry, Manipal Hospital, says that people with a calm exterior are actually the ones who need to watch out. “Emotions, when suppressed in the body, lead to physiological problems like high blood pressure and anxiety. This is the reason why people who vent their negative emotions are healthier than those who bottle them up. Swearing helps some people get the anger out,” he says. But Dr Raj also advises that while helping yourself, you might be hurting the other person.
Radhika Sinha*, 35, (name changed on request) lived life with enviable composure in the most trying situations. “It all evens out in time,” she believed and remained calm in the most unreasonable and unfair scenarios. But she couldn’t take it for too long. “I was giving my all to a project. But the organisers walked all over me. For days, I slogged and slogged until I was humiliated in a meeting,” she recalls. “Despite being the only woman in that group, I stood up and showered the crowd with all the bad words I knew. Frankly, I have no regrets. In fact, it made me feel very good about myself — I was relieved.”
Sinha had bottled up a lot of negative emotions over a period of time. People constantly took her for granted which caused her stress and left her with low self-esteem. “Bottled-up emotions are big villains in peoples’ lives. Swearing helps one release them and feel lighter,” says Catherine Caldwell Harris, associate professor of psychology, Boston University. Harris has conducted in-depth studies on the effect of language and words and says: “Swearing has a cathartic effect on people, similar to that of crying and screaming. When people are overwhelmed with sadness, they cry and feel better. Similarly, swearing helps people vent anger, frustration and it cuts stress a great deal.”
Supporting the argument, Dr Raj, says: “One of my patients, punches a sandbag while mouthing swear words every time she’s hurt. It makes her feel good.”
Remember the last time you called somebody an a*****e on the road? Whether it was because they cut in, in front of you in traffic or because they teased you, your immediate reaction was to swear at them. Harris explains: “In such situations, swearing equals an action that amounts to taking charge. And the victim will definitely feel better than just standing as a shocked witness. An action here would be performative — it shows the power of words.”
But Neena David, a clinical psychologist in Bangalore, warns that it could also escalate problems rather than resolve them. She says: “If there’s an accident and people resort to swearing at each other, it will only balloon up the problem.” David opines that feelings of anger and absolute helplessness are generally associated with cussing.
Reduce the pain
Swearing is looked down upon by those who subscribe to the ‘cultured’ way of life. Cussing, therefore, becomes a big deal. “When we use bad words we feel slightly accomplished, thanks to the baggage attached to the same. So when we do something taxing or undergo pain, we swear to feel accomplished to some extent. It gives us the courage to take the pain and live with it,” says Harris.
Dr Richard Stephens, a British scientist who carried out a research on ‘swearing as a response to pain’, said he got the idea for the study after watching his wife give birth to their daughter, spilling a slew of swear words as she was dealing with labour pains. He also said that cussing is an inherited guttural response to a painful situation. In the study, the researchers tested how 64 students tolerated pain by having them plunge a hand into ice water while repeating swear words. They were then asked to do it again while saying non-offensive words. They found that those allowed to swear had a higher tolerance for pain and could keep their hands submerged for about 40 seconds longer.
Remember the story of the child who was asked to hammer a nail into a fence every time he got angry and used bad words? The holes left by the hammered nails in the fence are compared to the scars left on a person’s mind. Words can soothe, they can also cause irreparable damage.
Cussing, therefore, is a double-edged sword, and comes with a number of riders. It is a useful vent for built-up frustration. But one should be careful and empathetic about another’s feelings at the same time.