Do You Swear To Tell The Truth?

Honest Criminals

Way back in 1995, a singer-songwriter named Alanis Morissette released a song called Ironic, in which she described a series of disappointing events and then cajoled us, the listeners, to agree that these situations really were ironic.  An army of literary pedants arose from the reeds to inform us that the situations described in Miss Morissette’s song were not ironic; they were merely unfortunate.  This prompted a second wave of pedants to correct the first wave, not because they thought that Alanis Morissette had perfectly summed up the concept of irony, but because they thought the first wave had botched it as well (which I suppose is sort of ironic in its own way).  When the dust settled on Ironic-gate, the general public was just as confused about the meaning of irony as they had been before Miss Morissette’s song hit the airwaves.

Due in no small part to the kerfuffle surrounding the song Ironic, I am generally hesitant to use the word.  My fear is that I will mislabel something as ironic, and therefore earn the scorn and derision of all my former English teachers.  When I venture to call something ironic, then, it is because I really feel that it’s an ironic slam dunk.  Before I will say the word ironic when describing a situation, it has to be so in-your-face ironic that Alanis Morissette, the alleged Queen of Misunderstanding Irony, when presented with the same situation, would say “Ah, now I see!  Now I get what irony is all about!”

Friends, dear friends, I believe that this meme is…ironic.

Why, you ask?

Well, the meme says that human behavioral studies suggest a link between potty-mouthedness and truthfulness.  That’s not the ironic part, although I do want to address it later.  But the image that accompanies the meme – the picture that the meme’s author thought perfect to complement this message about honesty and trustworthiness – is that of one William Stanley Moore…a criminal.

You see, Mister Moore was arrested on May 1st of the year 1925, on charges of being “an opium dealer operating with large quantities of faked opium and cocaine”.  Faked opium and cocaine.  That’s right, folks: not only was Bill Moore completely untrustworthy in the eyes of the law, but his own criminal associates would have been wise to regard him with a skeptical eye as well.  Moore was the very epitome of a dishonest, not-to-be-trusted human being.  Now I’ve no idea if Mister Moore swore a lot (My gut tells me that he probably did.) but the fact remains that the meme’s author, for whatever reason, chose to accompany a message about honesty with a picture of a man who rates a zero point zero on the Trust-O-Meter.

Let’s move past the hilariously inept image choice and talk about the message of the meme itself.  Is it true?  Are potty-mouthed people more deserving of trust than the people whose language is good and wholesome and pure?  Is that a common perception?

It’s hard to say.  My research turned up several articles that mentioned the swearing/honesty connection.  They all pointed to the same source, a 2012 piece called The Science of Swearing, written by Timothy Jay and Kristen Janschewitz for The Observer, which is published by the Association for Psychological Science.  It’s worth noting that Jay and Janschewitz do not claim that people who swear are more honest, or even that they are perceived to be more honest.  In fact, they say precious little about the personality characteristics of those who pepper their prose with profanity, until the very last paragraph:

Swearing is positively correlated with extraversion and is a defining feature of a Type A personality. It is negatively correlated with conscientiousness, agreeableness, sexual anxiety, and religiosity.

And that is the extent of the authors’ divinations regarding the personalities of the potty-mouthed.  Jay and Janschewitz even distance themselves from these claims by reminding the reader on several occasions that these conclusions are drawn from observations alone, and that further psychological research is needed.

So really…these studies that show a connection between profanity and honesty?  Yeah, they don’t exist.  If you want to cuss like a sailor, go for it – I guess – but know that the scientific community doesn’t have your back on this one.

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