For seventeen years I taught writing to college freshmen and high school seniors. Watching who thought swearing was mature, or cool, or the way of the world, was always fascinating.
Without fail, those who swore were the most insecure and desperate to prove something.
One semester I was asked to teach the automotive repair students at a local community college. It was an experiment to see if the very low opinion of those students might not be elevated somehow if they knew how to write a complete sentence. For some reason, the administration thought I was up to that task.
Their profanity began the first day, the moment they saw that a “girl” was teaching them (I was a mother of six children at the time—that’s how “girly” I was). Maybe each of those “boys” secretly wanted to be in the navy, judging by their level of poor language.
But in time we forged a friendship, and they related to me how everyone “dissed” them and disrespected them.
“That’s because you talk like 7th grade wusses,” I told them, hoping “wusses” was a word they could relate to. “Real grownups don’t use language like you see in the movies. Listen to people. Really listen to them. You’ll notice you’re the only ones cussing so heavily. Also watch people. Really watch them. You’ll see them wincing every time you drop the F-bomb.”
“Like you wince?”
To my surprise, they were apologetic. Turns out I was the only college instructor who ever listened to them, who actually talked with them.
I told them that was hard for me to do, because while I liked them and found them entertaining (some were very funny), I felt as if they didn’t respect me because of the words they threw at me. Literally every sentence had at least one swear word in it, if it fit or not.
To my further surprise, they became quiet, and one of them said, “But you’re the only teacher we do respect. You’re the only one who seems to care.”
So I issued a challenge. I told them that I cared so much that I wanted them to earn the respect they desperately wanted. To do so, they had to cut back on their swearing, to four words the entire class. I wrote their names on the board, and kept tally marks as if it were 6th grade. They were also allowed only one F-bomb, and if they exceeded their limits, their peers could mete out fitting punishment.
They elected that a punch to the shoulder—one per word over the limit—was a memorable deterrent.
By the end of the first day, several boys were severely bruised.
But by the end of the semester, six weeks later, these young men reported back that something was changing in the garages where they interned. They had been listening, and watching, and learning.
They noticed that their managers weren’t as profane as they were, and saved the juiciest words for only when they dropped a car hood on their hands. And their managers never, ever, swore in front of clients.
Taking those cues, my students curtailed their swearing in the shop.
The fact that I taught them some new “swear” words also helped.
I told them that when I’m frustrated or angry, I say something random, like “fire engines!” It’s the way you say something, not necessarily what you say. My swear word always make me feel better, primarily because it sounds ridiculous in whatever context I utter it. I also know a man who said “hammer!” each time he was angry, and I suggested to these young men that they find new “swear” words.
They did. While I don’t remember all of them now, I do recall that one guy loved to shout “cheese and potatoes!” in the shop. It always elicited chuckles, and he’d find himself smiling too, alleviating his anger and allowing him to fix a carburetor without beating it first with a wrench.
Eventually my students noticed that they had more patience with themselves and their work when they didn’t swear.
I know this, because for their final paper I asked them to reflect on our experiment.
They reported that they were thinking clearer, and acting kinder, and developing self control, something they didn’t think was possible.
As a result, they were respecting other people, and wanted to demonstrate that with their language.
And best of all, they were receiving respect, for the first time in their lives.
Not a single one of them improved the sentences they wrote, but looking back, that really wasn’t the goal of the class.