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On Swears and Other Polarizing Language: Building Better Word Habits

Two women talking. One says "Oh my gourd." The reply, "Watch your phraseology..."

Crumbs. Jam it. Holy Canasta!

So, I had to unlearn some words when I moved back to Kentucky from Boston (with a detour through Germany).

The culture around swearing in Boston was different. It didn’t seem like a big deal to me when people swore at work. In Kentucky, many people believe swearing is unprofessional. After living here a while, I decided to adapt to my environment.

As an editor, I ask clients to consider using different language sometimes. I want to share about my experience with that process. For me, there was both an emotional journey and a process of behavior change.

What had to change to make me feel differently about swearing?

I don’t attach a moral meaning to the garden-variety swear words I was using. But I realized over time that it was unnecessary to offend people purely from carelessness.

Learning that these words have negative associations for some people, frankly, didn’t make me want to change. When people disapproved of my swearing, I mostly felt judged. But as I developed friendships and work connections with people that didn’t use or like swears, that made me wonder about the pros and cons of my word habits.

A big shift for me happened when I remembered that words are part of the culture of a place. My experience living in Germany made me appreciate people who are accepting of cultural differences while also living their values. I decided to view changing my language, not as losing the freedom to say certain words, but as an invitation to be more culturally flexible. That made me feel more open to adapting.

Now I look back and think that my mindset was kind of immature. Learning to swear as a young adult had felt like part of my coming of age. I had negative feelings about being given a list of words I couldn’t say. It felt like being treated like a child again. But I came to see that having a filter fits better with how I want to show up as an adult. Choosing the right words for the context reflects emotional intelligence.

So the emotional journey was something like this:

Feeling judged > Coming to value the opinions of people from a different regional culture because I had relationships with them > Noticing an opportunity to think about change differently > Then finally being ready to try changing > And now still having some feelings about that whole process.

A new habit requires practice.

Swear words were a sort of mental habit, so even after I had the intention to stop swearing, I didn’t remember to follow through in every situation. Sometimes I thought of replacement words on the spot, sometimes I repeated the old habit words.

Over time I started to have fun with the process of replacing swear words, which meant that I was better prepared with substitute words. I realized that I could create my own palette of swears, totally fun swears that have more of my personality in them than the generic ones.

The swears I was unlearning? Those weren’t even words I created. They were somebody else’s words socialized into me.

I realized with dawning horror that my mother had been right: swearing vocabulary was kind of lazy. Imprecise. Not that fun. I wanted my own vocabulary that was strictly better.

Crumbs. Jam it. Holy Canasta! Ope!

(Please send my way any other ideas for fun swears based on baked goods, puns, or Midwestern culture.)

With a vocabulary in place, my practice was more successful.

Looking back, I see familiar elements from the model of behavior change and the process of forming a new habit in my journey.

And now I’m perfect!

Just kidding. I’m still working on choosing my words mindfully for the context. But I’m a lot less likely to swear in work settings, or around your children, or around my poor mother. And I grew up a little bit in the process.

The emotional journey around my new habit continues. Needing to change my behavior is a little bit embarrassing, and I had to think about whether I wanted to share this story with you. But I do want to. Here’s why.

We’re all learning to use better words.

I support my clients with edits related to conscious language. And my clients also teach me about conscious language. It can be uncomfortable. I understand how it feels to have an editor ask you to consider changing your language, especially language around race and ethnicity, gender, disability, and sexual orientation.

You want to know that someone sees your positive intentions. And you may not have ideas for words that you could use instead of the familiar words.

Editors are in the business of helping writers connect with their audience and build credibility. We do that by offering options. So when I say I talk with writers about conscious language, what that looks like is giving my clients information about the associations that readers bring to words, and also offering other word or style choices (style includes spelling, capitalization, hyphenation, and more) that serve their goal of connecting with a wide readership.

Just like my little project of learning to swear less, adopting conscious language is a process. It helps to have the mindset that we can be flexible and find better words over time with practice. Editors have tools like word lists that can help us (me too, still learning here!) be prepared to act on our intention to change our language.

We try because people we care about asked us to.

The words we’re leaving behind? Not even our words! Socialized into us.

Often kind of lazy, definitely not that fun. Imprecise. Not the greatest of habits.

We can find better words, with help and practice.

Learn more: FAQ What is conscious language and how does it help writers?

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