I started to lead reading sessions at a new site the other day as part of my work with The Reader. It was fantastic to meet some young people in a criminal justice setting and to share stories together. After almost nine months of waiting to start in-person groups, it was both scary and a relief to finally get to do it. And you know what? It felt as if I’d been doing it for years. Impostor syndrome made an attempt to say something but she shut up pretty quickly as I just got on with the job.
One of the first things the librarian said to me was, “Nice to finally meet you! Do you swear by any chance?” I was nonplussed but admitted that, yes, I do have a bit of a potty mouth. It’s no surprise that in those settings the language is fairly colourful; it’s probably a release of some sort but it’s also psychologically very healthy.
Various studies have found that our tolerance for pain is higher when we’re swearing. In one experiment, subjects had to plunge their hands into ice-cold water while a timer measured how long they could cope. Those who shouted out curse words were able to last longer. About ten years ago celebrities got involved – have a look here to see how Brian Blessed got on (you can probably guess).
“Life’s disappointments are harder to take when you don’t know any swear words.”
Calvin & Hobbes
Before you get too excited and start introducing foul language into everyday interactions, there’s a caveat. Isn’t there always? Because it turns out that the effect is only noticeable if the subject doesn’t regularly swear. The brain seems to be startled into pain-management mode only if it’s equally startled by the bad words.