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On dropping the “F-bomb”

I have spent the last decade or so of my professional life working in a wide variety of institutions, ranging from maximum security correctional facilities to the local university. Needless to say, the organizational cultures of these various institutions vary. Thus, at times I have to remind myself about where I am and therefore how I should behave.

April 11, 2017  By Dorothy Cotton

One aspect of my behaviour that I try (sometimes unsuccessfully) to moderate is my tendency to have somewhat of a foul mouth. Swearing is common in a penitentiary, and no one really thinks much of it. In fact, occasionally, it is actually useful with the offenders. I tend to look a little like a grandmother to some of the guys there and it causes them not to take me very seriously. But I definitely get their attention if I include some carefully chosen un-grandmotherly language in my early interactions with them.

Alas, this is not the case when I teach at the university. I am not terribly good at inhibiting and monitoring my speech, so inevitably, at some time doing a lecture or discussion, words come out of my mouth that are definitely not appropriate to the environment. Oops. One of these days, some student is going to complain. (So far, I have included a discussion about social psychology and environmental influences and cultural differences in my lectures and managed to convince the students that it is all part of the learning experience.)
Anyhow, it was in this context that an article about the use of profanity by police caught my eye. My own experience with police is that foul language is almost a job requirement, particularly among the front line folks. I can’t say that I know whether or not you all use profanity when you are arresting people (so far, I have managed not to be arrested) but I certainly notice colourful and explicit language in every day conversations. Did you ever wonder what effect this has on the people you interact with (other than each other, and me)?

Some researchers at West Virginia University and the Pennsylvania Police College had the same thought.1 They wondered if “Police profanity may negatively bias police citizen interactions, and this bias could shape later interactions with community members, impact the quality of police-community relations, or even result in public outcry over excessive use of force,” and thus designed a study whose aim was to determine whether officer use of profanity during arrest led to public perceptions of excessive force.

Needless to say, public perceptions are a big issue these days. Whether deservedly or not, the public perception of Canadian police is inevitably influenced by the activities of our colleagues to the south, so their observations are worthy of consideration.


I will spare you the gory details of the study itself. Take my word for the fact that it involved lots of questions and statistics with complex formulae and Greek letters (or you can read it yourself—see the reference at the end of this column). But in response to the first question of whether people perceived there to be a greater use of force when officers used profanity during an arrest, the answer was yes. Even when the actual objective use of force was exactly the same, it seemed to observers that more force was used if the officers involved used profanity in the process. Study participants commented that officers seemed like they were out of control or intentionally trying to escalate a situation when swearing was involved.

There was also a curious effect when the issue of gender was brought into the equation. The impact of the use of profanity did not tend to vary depending on the gender of the person being arrested. Observers tended to rate the use of force as higher whenever females were being arrested, and profanity did not have much to do with that. But if the arresting officer was female, and the observer was also female, then profanity had a greater significant effect. So, in essence, when women were being arrested and the officer involved was also a woman, then male observers did not seem to care much about whether the officer used profanity—but female observers did.

So watch your language.

Frankly, while no one in the research world has paid much attention to police use of profanity (likely because it seems to be viewed as simply part of the culture), there is a lot of research about use of profanity in general and how it is viewed by others.

In my own field, there is research that suggests that overall, profane language during a therapy session can lead to the idea that the counsellor is less credible or effective, less trustworthy, unprofessional, and insensitive to client needs. In an academic setting, swearing by faculty is linked to perceptions of unethical behaviour.

But when you get to issues of profanity and women, the issue becomes far more complex. There are studies that indicate that women who use profanity are less credible and viewed more negatively; there are studies that say use of profanity has no effect—and there are even the very occasional studies that say that women are viewed as More credible when they swear (Indeed, as noted above, that is my subjective impression in some instances). Interestingly, the research findings seem to vary a bit depending on when the studies were carried out. Older research, conducted during the times when women were expected to act like women (submissive, “nice” etc.) were more likely to find people aghast that women swore. Maybe this effect is simply decreasing as women are seen as less different from men—at least in the workplace.

But back to the use of profanity by police in general…not a lot of real research here. People have suggested there are good reasons to use profanity in policing. It is a way of bonding with colleagues, it is a way to vent and reduce frustration, it can get the attention of the Bad Guys and may elicit more cooperation. It may also help the police officer establish a level of social distance from the people being arrested which makes doing icky things less distressing…who knows?

But in the increasingly complex world of public scrutiny and filmed/recorded interactions, it might be worth some thought as to whether the benefits outweigh the liabilities when dropping the F-bomb.

1 Patton, C.L., Asken, M., Fremouw, W.J. et al. J Police Crim Psych (2017). doi:10.1007/s11896-017-9226-0

Dr. Dorothy Cotton is Blue Line’s psychology columnist. She can be contacted at:

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