Why is it that many of us are so ready to use the word ‘fuck’ in times of merriment with friends, but not in many formal social environments with unfamiliar faces? Hoeksema and Napoli (2008) argue that swearing “flavors our speech, it shows great variation among social groups and especially social settings, and it changes all the time” (p. 347). So perhaps this is the root of the matter, that different social settings favour different flavours of language. You wouldn’t go to a job interview and explain how “fucking brilliant” you are at stacking shelves, but you might if you were at the pub with friends, explaining how good you are at your new job.
Kapoor (2016) reports that Beers-Fägersten differentiated between two categories of swearing: “(a) annoyance swearing, associated with greater transgression, where the swearer is stressed; and (b) social swearing, associated with social context, where the swearer is relaxed” (pp. 259-260). The example given prior (the job interview vs. the pub) definitely falls into category B, where swearing for intensified meaning is social and the individual is relaxed. Kapoor also suggests that social swearing “promotes social bonding, enabling the formation of coalitions” (2016, p. 260) but this is quite obviously ineffective in the context of a job interview, even if the interviewee’s goal is to form a coalition with the interviewer for the express purpose of being hired. Using ‘fuck’ in an interview would issue the quite appropriate response that the interviewee may not be able to act in a professional manner with clientele, as they have already ignored quite a stable social norm.
Perhaps it is a matter of politeness, as Isaacs (2014) argues: “Swear words are words not in general polite usage” (p. 1). It simply wouldn’t be polite to assume enough social intimacy to use vulgar words (words of an unrefined nature, like ‘fuck’) in unfamiliar company. Allan and Burridge (2006) argue that “[w]hat counts as courteous behaviour varies between human groups; and, because the smallest group consists of just two people, the variation is boundless” (p. 29). Lexical self-censorship, or politeness in this case, between human groups is “sensitive to social standing” (Allan & Burridge, 2006, p. 30). In the context of an interview, the social standing is clear; the interviewee is asking something of the interviewer (i.e. to be considered for the job), and so with that request, the interviewer is given a certain power over the interviewee. This power demands a certain respect for the social standing of the particular “context, place and time. That which is polite is at least inoffensive and at best pleasing to an audience” (Allan & Burridge, 2006, p. 29). As the goal is established, to be hired, the interviewee must be sure to please the interviewer to accomplish it.
This obviously is not the case in the context of talking to friends over a pint. The concept of politeness does not necessarily apply in the same way here. Allan and Burridge (2006) state that “good manners” depends on a number of factors, including: “the relationship between speakers, their audience, and anyone within earshot; the subject matter; the situation (setting); and whether a spoken or written medium is used” (p. 29). This brings us back to what Kapoor (2016) said about swearing promoting “social bonding [and coalition]” (p. 260). The familiarity level is much higher here, the relationship between speakers is more intimate and, as such, the expected standard of politeness differs to that of an interview setting. It is socially acceptable to ‘flavour’ your speech in the company of friends as there are no stakes involved, unlike in an interview.
While swearing does flavour our speech and promote social comradery, it is entirely dependent on the context in which it is used, as previously discussed. Using ‘fucking’ as a lexical intensifier may be quite innocuous in an everyday social setting, but in an interview, it would surely flag up as an ignored social norm of expected politeness, and decrease one’s chances of being hired. As this is not the intended outcome of an interview, we all have to censor our flavourful speech unless, of course, you’ve applied to work in Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen.
JAKE PARRY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK