Generally, swearing is associated with anger, frustration and a lack of self control. Swearing is seen as a juvenile response to a situation when a person cannot formulate a logical or reasonable defense. Someone may swear when things aren't going their way, when they are trying to make a point, when they are trying to anger or insult someone or when they get cut off in traffic. Some people swear because it is a bad habit. Foul language is not the social taboo it used to be (just watch an episode of The Shield or Nip/Tuck) but it is still generally regarded as inappropriate in most settings.
Law enforcement officers are trained not to use foul language (not that anyone has ever been trained on how to swear). Swearing is perceived as unprofessional and as a sign of lack of discipline. Lately some use of force continuums have placed yelling/swearing between constructive force and physical force, but generally supervisors frown on officers dropping "F-bombs." Despite this widely recognized rule, is there a time when swearing may actually be beneficial to the profession? Research out of the Netherlands seems to indicate that there may be a time and place for a well-placed swear word.
Does cursing increase credibility?
When a suspect makes a statement containing a swear word, does it strengthen or weaken his credibility? Is he so convinced with his argument that only the strongest words can explain the depth of his conviction? Is he so outraged by the false accusation that he foregoes all linguistic taboos and just spews forth what is in his soul? Or is the swearing a sign of weakness, trying to convince the listener of a faulty argument in absence of facts? Eric Rassin and Simone van der Heijden set out to research whether swearing increased or decreased believability. Their findings, published in Psychology, Crime & Law, June2005, may benefit our profession.
Rassin and van der Heijden conducted a three part study. In the first part, 76 undergraduate students (72 females, average age 20 years) were asked to read a passage that concluded with "Do you think that the inclusion of swearwords is a sign of truthfulness, a sign of deceitfulness, or a non-discriminative characteristic?"
46% didn't think it mattered either way; swearing didn't indicate truthfulness or deception. 38% believed the swearing indicated deceit, while only 16% felt the swearing made the statement more credible. So when a group of college girls were asked, "Does cursing make a statement more believable?" only 16% said "Yes."
In the second part of the test, 70 female college students were asked to read a portion of a phony police interrogation. Half of the group read a denial that contained swear words, while the other half read the same denial without the swear words. The believability of the statements was rated on a scale of one to ten. Contradicting the first part of the study, the suspect's denial containing the swear words was judged to be more credible than the ones without the swear words.
With conflicting results from the first two parts of the study, the researchers gathered 54 undergraduate students and had them read an excerpt from an alleged victim. Again, one group read a transcript containing swear words and the other group read the identical statement without the swear words. The victim's statement with the swear words was believed to be more credible.
The authors concluded that although people say profanity weakens credibility, people actually judge swearing as a sign of honesty. This research would appear to support the sprinkling of a few curse words into a conversation when one is trying to appear credible. Swearing is viewed by many not as a sign of anger, but as a sign of sincerity.
It should be recognized that the participants in this study were 20 year old (approximately) college students and their tolerance toward swearing may be different than older people, or people from more conservative parts of our country. But the average age of criminal actors and victims is generally 17-24 years old. This is the group that law enforcement officers deal with the most. The implications of this research for police are that this group is not offended by swearing and may actually use profanity as a gauge of credibility. Officers should be must more careful and precise in noting statements taken at crime scenes, accident scenes and at dispute calls. Officers will want to be extra careful not to "sanitize" a victim's statement for a report. Officers conducting roadside interviews or station house interrogations can use this knowledge in helping to determine the sincerity of a suspect's statement; an officer may want to re-phrase a question (and dirty it up a little bit) in an effort to gain more credibility.
Whether on the side of a road or in the station house, law enforcement officers are always looking for the slightest edge in dealing with an unknown situation. An occasional swear word may not only relieve stress, but may actually lend credibility to what an officer says.