Swearing and Perceptions of the Speaker: Online responses to celebrity swearing

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractpeer-review


Swearing has been shown to affect hearers’ perceptions of speakers, particularly if it occurs in an unexpected context and/or by an unexpected source (Johnson & Lewis, 2010). Some studies show favourable effects, including perceptions of greater speaker informality, intensity, persuasiveness, humour, and credibility (Rassin & van der Heijden 2004; Scherer & Sagarin 2006; Cavazza & Guidetti, 2014; Generous et al., 2015). However, others identify negative attributions, with swearers perceived variously as: less competent, more socially inept, less intelligent, more aggressive, and less trustworthy than non-swearers (Winters & Duck 2001; Johnson & Lewis, 2010; Hair & Ozcan 2018; DeFrank & Kahlbaugh, 2018). Such findings reflect the complex sociolinguistic and pragmatic nature of swearing (see Beers Fägersten & Stapleton, 2017), including offence potential, context dependence, and socio-demographic associations.

Most existing studies are based on experimental methodologies, which typically use constructed (e.g. vignette-based or specially recorded) data and directly elicit evaluations of the speakers. In this paper, I approach the issue from a perspective that is closer to ‘real world’ processes of perception and attribution. Using Discursive Psychology principles, I analyse a sample of online reader comments in response to newspaper reports of two separate instances of celebrity (host) swearing during the televised UK BAFTA awards ceremonies: Stephen Fry (2015) and Sue Perkins (2017). In this way, I analyse the sense-making processes and meaning frameworks through which people evaluate swearing (here, occurring in an unexpected context); and specifically, the types of perceptions and attributions that they form about the speakers, including their motivations for swearing and their personal characteristics. The analysis further explores how folklinguistic beliefs and category associations, as well as contextual and role expectations/violations, underpin this process.


Beers Fägersten, K. and Stapleton, K. (2017) ‘Introduction: Swearing research as variations on a theme’. In Beers Fägersten, K. and Stapleton, K. (eds). Advances in Swearing Research: New languages and new contexts (pp. 1-15). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Cavazza, N. and Guidetti, M. (2014). ‘Swearing in political discourse: Why vulgarity works’. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 33 (5): 537-547.

DeFrank, M and Kahlbaugh, P. (2018). ‘Language choice matters: When profanity affects how people are judged’. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 1-16. DOI: 10.1177/0261927X18758143

Generous, M.A., Frei, S.S. and Houser, M.L. (2015). ‘When an Instructor swears in class: Functions and targets of Instructor swearing from college students’ retrospective accounts’. Communication Reports 28 (2): 128-140.

Hair, M. and Ozcan, T. (2018). ‘How reviewers’ use of profanity affects perceived usefulness of online reviews’. Marketing Letters 29 (2): 151-163.

Johnson, D. I. and Lewis, N. (2010). ‘Perceptions of swearing in the work setting: An expectancy violations theory perspective’. Communication Reports 23: 106-118.

Rassin, E. and Van Der Heijden, S. (2005) ‘Appearing credible? Swearing helps!’ Psychology, Crime & Law 11 (2): 177-182.

Scherer, C.R. and Sagarin, B.J. (2006). ‘Indecent influence: The positive effects of obscenity on persuasion’. Social Influence 1 (2) 138-146.

 Winters, A. M., & Duck, S. (2001). ‘You ****!: Swearing as an aversive and a relational activity’. In Kowalski, R.M. (ed). Behaving Badly: Aversive behaviors in interpersonal relationships (pp. 59–78). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 23 May 2019
EventThe 6th Swearing in Scandinavia Symposium - Stockholm, Sweden
Duration: 23 May 201924 Jun 2019


ConferenceThe 6th Swearing in Scandinavia Symposium
Internet address


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