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Swearing makes you seem more honest 

Friday, January 27, 2017
posted by Douglas Keene

But we still don’t recommend it in polite company (aka, the courtroom)! An international team of researchers (from the Netherlands, Hong Kong, the United States and the United Kingdom) have just published an article examining two perspectives on profanity and honesty.

The researchers say that, on one hand, profanity is considered a violation of social norms—but, on the other hand, profanity is often used to express one’s true feelings and might therefore, be seen as a sign of honesty. So (likely in search of tenure) these academics pressed forward to examine a question which has never crossed our minds: does swearing make you seem more honest? And, the short answer is, yes it does.

The researchers conducted three separate studies and here is a summary of what they found:

In general, we are more likely to swear to express ourselves rather than to attack others.

Those who swear were less likely to lie and deceive in a total of 73,000 Facebook updates (a metric of importance to be sure).

And finally, (by using the 2012 Integrity Analyses of 48 US states completed by the Center for Public Integrity) the researchers found that those who swear more tend to live in states that have more integrity. (Okay, then!) Yes, readers, we are also amazed that there are whole states that have more integrity. Oh—please don’t tell those 73,000 Facebook people about this or we will be inundated with likes, hates, and everything else we really don’t need.

The researchers say that when one is not filtering their language they are likely being truthful and that observers use this heuristic shortcut to assess trustworthiness. This would not always be true of course and the researchers do comment that just because you curse does not mean you are law-abiding. Good to know.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, it is an interesting study.

We’ve had witnesses who peppered their speech with profanities and while some mock jurors found it refreshing and a sign of honesty, others found it insulting and offensive. Thus, some mock jurors listened and some mock jurors tuned out.

We’ve had a male Hispanic witness who talked directly and without shame about extramarital sexual behavior, yet was embraced by our [generally conservative on social issues] Hispanic mock jurors as being “nasty but honest”.

And we’ve had female witnesses whose testimony was so matter-of-fact and seemingly non-rehearsed that mock jurors referred to them as “salt of the earth” sorts, based on just a few minutes of deposition excerpt.

We think using profanity in the courtroom is almost always a very bad idea. It might offend jurors, but it is almost sure to raise the ire of the judge. When mock jurors dismiss a witness’ testimony because “he wasn’t wearing a tie” or “her hair is a very strange color”—the use of profanity will communicate to jurors that a witness is at best not taking the process seriously, or disrespecting the court. My mom would have pointed out that there are certainly other behaviors aside from profanity that witnesses can use to bolster their credibility without sacrificing civility.

Just for fun, BigThink.com/ has summarized this paper and they include a 6 minute video with deception detection guru Paul Ekman on their site. You may find it interesting—and at minimum, you will see he is a very credible speaker—even without using profanity (or wearing a tie).

Feldman, G., Lian, H., Kosinski, M., & Stillwell, D. (2017). Frankly, We Do Give a Damn: The relationship between profanity and honesty. Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550616681055

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