Profanity and Seemingly Inappropriate Words in the Classroom

New ideas for improving critical thinking.

Posted Sep 20, 2017

After 13 years of teaching psychology courses, I banned a word for the first time. A word that is interfering with students ability to communicate about human behavior. You might assume the word is "can't," "no," "failure," or some other relic of the self-esteem movement. Or perhaps a profane word (a primer for those living in new age communes). I promise you, it is not profanity because I am a devout believer in the selective use of taboos—it wakes people up, increases the likelihood that an idea or story will be remembered, or simply offers a jolt of humor to keep a crowd engaged. Scientists agree, providing evidence that profanity can be awesome (or if you're a nerd like me, a useful pedagogical tool).

Africa Rising/Shutterstock
Source: Africa Rising/Shutterstock

One of the leading profanity researchers (yes, you can get paid for studying f-bombs with three-month summers to brag at pool parties), Dr. Richard Stephens, recently offered concluding thoughts on his discoveries:

We appear to have established a two-way relation between swearing and emotion. Not only can swearing provoke an emotional response [as shown in the swearing and pain research] but raised emotional arousal has been shown to facilitate swearing, or at least one aspect of it, swearing fluency.

These psychology studies demonstrate that there is more to swearing than routine offense-causing or a lack of linguistic hygiene. Language is a sophisticated toolkit and swearing is a useful component.

When I am giving talks on the psychology of swearing I usually end with transcripts of the final utterances of fatal air-crash pilots, captured on the black box flight recorder because, unsurprisingly, many of these feature swearing. I use it to emphasise an important point: that swearing must be important given its prominence in matters of life and death.

If swearing offers natural pain relief, who am I to ban it in class? My students are forced to sit in a chair for 1.5 to 3 hours. Let them use benign coping mechanisms to help them stay engaged. I am interested in education and training, not whether their language is suitable for a Pixar film.

In a moment, I will detail the word I banned in hopes you also reconsider its value. But first, let me recount the origin of how this word initially seemed to be a solution instead of a disease. 

Years ago, Dr. Chris Peterson coined the phrase "other people matter" to capture what he felt is the greatest distillation of decades of research on optimal living in humans, groups, and societies. Since then, these three words have become a bumper sticker for many invested in positive psychology. Peterson was an amazing researcher, colleague, and friend. I had three reactions when I first heard him utter this phrase.

1. Right on. Human beings who feel isolated, alone (especially in a room full of people), and unsure of what tribe they belong to are more likely to get sick and die at a younger age. Feeling a deep, meaningful connection to other people is arguably the most fundamental psychological need of being human. It kept us alive 2 million years ago and it keeps us sane, functional, and strong in the modern world. Chris nailed it.

2. The overuse of this phrase has led people to miss equally important discoveries. For instance, when people mentally tune into what they are feeling, this information is often used to provide information about who they are, what should be attended to, and whether to persist, quit, or pivot on a task. This mood-as-information model is profound. When in a slightly unhappy mood, we are more attentive to the stink eye of a boss or romantic partner, whether there are signs that someone is lying or deceptive, and generally act like a private detective instead of a playful, creative entrepreneur. When in a happy mood, this signals a benign situation and we tend to be less detail-oriented and focused; instead we are more playful and creative. Knowing how moods push and pull us toward particular ways of processing people, objects, and situations around us can help us decide whether to stick with the flow or intentionally reverse course. This is just one body of research that is as integral to understanding and improving human functioning as work on the value of close relationships. Humans are far too sophisticated to be boiled down into three godforsaken words. Please take a look at 50 great myths about human behavior that psychological scientists have debunked. Chris was right but please, let us retain the sophisticated body of knowledge that scientists have acquired about the human condition.

3. As an ode to Chris Peterson, l want to describe a few of his great contributions beyond composing a cute three-word phrase. Chris is the lead author of the most definitive scientific treatise on personality strengths and their relevance to history. He created, arguably, the single best measure of optimism that has been used thousands of times to understand how this strength can be amplified and diminished. He also initiated an inquiry into how an aspirational focus can be used to reduce the amount of suffering in the world; he coined the term "positive clinical psychology." Because of this fusion of fields, allied health professionals began to discover that helping people use and develop personality strengths offers a potential backdoor route to reducing depressive symptoms and other emotional disturbances. Good on ya Chris! I would be remiss if you are remembered for a branding effort as opposed to decades of incredible discoveries about human strengths, physical health, and mental health promotion. 

So just stop it. Stop reducing complexity for the sake of cuteness. My own attempt to alter this wave of enthusiasm was to start saying "Context matters." My playful and honest attempt to get people to appreciate the sophisticated body of work that exists on whether, when, and how close relationships can help or hinder our psychological and physical well-being. 

Consider a few nuanced ideas from Drs. James McNulty and Frank Fincham that question the blanket positive value of relationship partners:

So, is forgiveness positive psychology or negative psychology? We argue it is neither. Rather, forgiveness is a process that can be either beneficial or harmful, depending on characteristics of the relationship in which it occurs. McNulty (2008) used a sample of 72 newlywed couples who reported their marital satisfaction up to four times over the course of two years to make this point. Although forgiveness was positively associated with marital satisfaction initially, the association between spouses’ forgiveness and changes in their marital satisfaction depended on the frequency with which their partners directed hostile behaviors (e.g., sarcasm, insulting, swearing) toward them. 

Nevertheless, several studies suggest that kindness can have harmful implications. For instance, research on the most advantageous strategies to use while playing prisoner’s dilemma games indicates that kinder players (i.e., those who are more likely to cooperate) experience more competitions as those games develop over time (Axelrod, 1980). Likewise, other research indicates that unkindness can offer benefits to relationships (Cohan & Bradbury, 1997; Gottman & Krokoff, 1989; Heavey, Layne, & Christensen, 1993; Karney & Bradbury, 1997). For example, Karney and Bradbury (1997) used growth curve modeling to demonstrate that wives’ tendencies to engage in unkind behaviors during problem-solving discussions (e.g., rejection, criticism) predicted more stable satisfaction among both husbands and wives across eight assessments of marital satisfaction spanning four years.

If your everyday experience with a spouse is infused with violent verbal and/or physical altercations, it is probably better to get divorced. Under these conditions, it is better for kids living in the household to have divorced parents than those that stay together. Other people matter but sometimes you just need to get the hell away from them. Sometimes you need solitude to think, create, and recharge mental batteries. 

But I didn't ban the phrase "other people matter".

I banned the word context.

Sometimes you uncover an idea and then once you listen to other people put it to use, you recognize the delusion and futility. 

For over an hour, I conversed with students in my class. Here are the types of exchanges that drove me insane. (Note: slightly modified versions to illustrate my point.)

Student 1: Social anxiety can be adaptive, it has evolutionary value, warning us that a blunder might lead to rejection.

Student 2: Well, I don't know. It depends on the context. 

Student 1: Sure, I didn't mean every single situation.

Me: What is healthy about worrying?

Student 3: From a contextual lens, worry can help people solve problems.

Student 4: I wonder if there is some way to train people that are extremely socially anxious to be more narcissistic, the healthy forms of narcissism.

Student 5: You would have to clarify the contexts where you think that would work.

This is just a sampling of conversations in my classes, writings in academic papers, and talks given at academic conferences. I need to confess. I am a member of the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (a most unappetizing name). I have published scientific studies in the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science. I have written about the importance of context in several books and several of my papers (probably the most egregious is this). So why have I changed my view?

The word doesn't mean anything without additional details and/or examples. Context is a wastebasket, umbrella, bloated term (in technical language this is called bracket creep - a similar phenomenon that exists with the definition of trauma). Allowance of the word "context" leads to lazy thinking. I have seen people use it to describe individual differences in people including personality, intelligence, and interests. I have seen people use it to capture different socioeconomic classes, racial and ethnic groups, and gender and sexual orientations. I have seen people use it to capture the entire universe of possible situations and tasks that could be part of someone's day. I have seen people use it to distinguish the form of an emotion such as anger and the function of how anger can be attended to, appreciated, and expressed in particular ways. The word context has started to become everything and thus, the word means nothing.

Remove the word from your language and you will think more clearly. Remove the word from your speech and you will be pushed to provide concrete details that increase your persuasive powers. If the word context requires qualifiers, skip to the exact terms. 

Omit needless words. I am looking forward to more efficient and effective communication. This is not the first nor will it be the last time I change my mind. I simply promise to be open about it. 

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, professor of psychology, and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His latest book is The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why being your whole self—not just your “good” self—drives success and fulfillment. For more, visit