What happens when middle-aged ladies swear


A couple of years ago, some researchers at Keele University in England published a study purporting to show that swearing relieved pain. It was a small study (just 67 participants) and the explanation—that swearing perhaps triggers a fight-or-flight response from the amygdala that suppresses awareness of pain—is completely speculative.

But even if that study is right, some new research may have uncovered a flaw in the "Swear and Feel Better" plan. Swearing may deaden physical pain, but it could also deter other people from offering you emotional support. At the very least, swearing in front of other people is associated with feeling like they aren't offering you as much emotional support.

Megan Robbins and her team recorded snippets of speech from middle-aged women with rheumatoid arthritis, and others with breast cancer, and found those who swore more in the company of other people also experienced increased depression and a perceived loss of social support.

The sample sizes were small (13 women with rheumatoid arthritis and 21 women with breast cancer), but the technology was neat. The women wore "an electronically activated recorder" that periodically sampled ambient sounds, including speech. A lapel microphone recorded 50s every 18 minutes over two weekends for the arthritis sample and 50s every 9 minutes over one weekend for the breast cancer patients. Two months or four months after baseline the women repeated measures of their depression and perceived social support - the latter measured by agreement with statements like "I get sympathy and understanding from someone". The key finding is that higher rates of swearing in someone else's company, but not solitary swearing, were associated with an increase in depression symptoms and a drop in perceived social support. Moreover, statistical analysis suggested the effect of swearing on depression was mediated by the lost social support.

Of course, there could also be some socio/cultural factors at work here, too. All the participants in this study were middle-aged women. Would middle-aged men—or, for that matter, women of a younger, more-swearing-prone generation—feel the same way? There's a possibility that this study could have more to say about what middle-aged women expect from themselves, or who other people expect them to be.

Image: F bomb, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from richardsummers's photostream



  1. This seems like it isn’t doing enough to show causality, not just correlation.

    Isn’t it entirely plausible that someone would get more rude/verbally aggressive with people who they feel disappointed by? (for example, family & friends who aren’t lending them the support that they desire)

    1. I’m thinking the same thing. Wouldn’t observing sufferers of arthritis and breast cancer bring so many more variables to have to deal with?

  2. I only have one anecdote that sticks out. An ex girlfriend who normally didn’t swear much, would occasionally become frustrated, often while driving, and start swearing. The swearing in itself wasn’t what got to me, but the fact that she really enunciated and articulated the words. Usually when people say “piece of shit” they kind of roll through the syllables. She would really articulate each on, including hitting “of” fully, and it just struck me as her being basically inconsolable. I really, really hated that; it was probably the worst aspect of her otherwise wonderful personality.

  3. As far as expectations go, I feel I can trust a woman who swears comfortably (at least when kids aren’t around).

  4. “swearing relieved pain.”

    I’d say sex is even more effective. It works wonders on my wife’s headaches and cramps. The next best thing to morphine. Most folks just don’t enough especially as we get older.

  5. Miss Manners once said something to the effect that a lady might use the occasional expletive but shouldn’t have one printed on her sweatshirt.

  6. The assumption that middle aged women swear less than other members of society seems weak. I’m fucking ‘middle-aged’ and it seems my generation does as much goddamn cursing as any other age group.

  7. Oh please. Those of us who are “middle-aged” grew up in the 70’s, not the 50’s. Does the author think there was no swearing going on in that decade of innocence (note sarcasm)?

  8. I don’t give a flying fuck if people don’t like me swearing. I don’t do it in front of my mother-in-law or other easily startled people, but, as Mercator says, I grew up in the 70’s and I’m not going to get little-old-lady amnesia. I mean to be a salty old broad someday and that takes practice!

    Lee Rowan

  9. I believe when you get to certain age that people don’t care or listen. it’s like the “she’s ok she’s just old” attitude. you get away with a lot of being able to say what you really think.I tell it like it is and if you don’t like it then don’t listen. I really am at a point that I don’t care what people think.I feel that I am not here for you but just to live life.judge me as you will but I am not going to lose sleep over it.

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