Damn straight

This column originally appeared in The Observer magazine/Guardian online


How honest are you? To find out, simply answer the three questions below. How often do you swear (or use other “bad language”) (a) when talking face-to-face with another person, (b) when nobody else is around and (c) when messaging/emailing/online etc.?


(1) Never, (2) Maybe once a year, (3) A few times a year, (4) Once a month, (5) 2-3 times a month, (6) Once a week, (7) 2-3 times a week, (8) 4-6 times a week, (9) Every day, (10) Several times every day.


When you have your three scores out of ten, take the average (i.e., add them up and divide by 3). But before we see what that says about you, please also answer the following yes/no question:


If you say you will do something, do you always keep your promise no matter how inconvenient it might be?


Right, the average score (based on an online sample of around 300 people) is 6.5, so if you scored higher than this (i.e., you use bad language more than once a week), you are officially more sweary than the average person. You are also probably more honest. A study published this month, led by Gilad Feldman of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, found a positive correlation between swearing and honesty, as measured by yes/no questions such as the one you answered above. The logic is that nobody always keeps every single promise under every conceivable circumstance, so if you said “yes”, you are almost certainly lying (if only to yourself). In a second part of the study, the researchers found that people who swear more frequently on Facebook also show classic linguistic signs of dishonesty, such as reduced use of I and me (a sign of subconsciously trying to distance oneself from the lie). The researchers suggest that the reason for the link between swearing and honesty is that colourful language is generally used to express one’s genuine feelings.


A fully referenced version of this article is available at benambridge.com. Order Psy-Q by Ben Ambridge (Profile Books, £8.99) for £6.99 at bookshop.theguardian.com

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