Swearing by Example

I had the most wonderful aunt. She wasn’t wonderful in the take you out to eat, gossip, talk about boys kind of way. She was wonderful in the take charge, play with the boys, and swear kind of way. She was strong, self-aware, brash, capable, and extremely confident. Her most endearing and lasting quality was that she did not care what anyone else thought about her. She was extraordinary in every sense of the word.

For example, one of our favorite stories to tell about this aunt was one day a lady from the primary (back in the day when they were three separate meetings) dragged her son home by the ear, knocked on the door, and when my aunt answered the lady said, “Your son said !@#$% (a swear word). Can you believe that? I just can’t imagine why or where he learned that word? What is this world coming to?”

My aunt replied very deadpan, “Oh, I know sister. I have no clue where that little !@#$% (same swear word) learned such a thing.” Then she shut her door and went right back to doing what she was doing before.

This aunt has always been really important to me because she taught me that there were many ways to be a woman. I grew up in a family where women did not swear. Men could swear, but only in jokes or when they were really angry. I thought swearing was very bad. I am embarrassed to admit this, but I took it so far that I refused to date a guy I liked because I heard him swear while playing basketball. As I matured I have slowly shed some of the constraining behaviors I grew up that made me believe someone was “good” or “bad.” My aunt’s example has been critical to this molting because it taught me that being a good person was much more complicated than never saying a swear word.

In fact, this is an issue I am trying to figure out right now. I swear. I swear a lot. You name it, I say it. It is usually in my head and never at church, but its a regular daily occurrence. It’s not that I love swearing or think that it is a great thing, I just no longer think it is that bad. I’ve traveled around the world and learned others’ swear words and (in my youth) thought that it was funny to invoke a reaction by saying a strange word that means nothing to me. I’ve been in foreign countries where little children say one of our swear words and then giggle while I feel uncomfortable and sternly tell them not to say that.

I guess to me swearing has become something I find culturally relative. How can the combination of random letters have such strong meaning? To me swearing is a perfect example of a socially conscripted behavior. As a culture we share a list of words that are inappropriate. So much so, that their enumeration determines the rating of movies and songs. There are entire committees created to count swear words. To me, swear words are nothing but culturally agreed upon shared symbols of deviance. If you swear, you knowingly defy what is expected of you.

I secretly like that. Swearing is my way to assert that I am different, more complicated, more dimensional than my culture would have me be. In a sense, it subverts the traditional example of an LDS woman. It makes people reckon with the reality, rather than the ideal.

Lately, however, every time I swear I follow it with, “I’ve got to stop doing that before my daughter is old enough to understand!” I want to be a “good” example to her. I don’t want people to ever think poorly of her because of my example. And yet, I loved my aunt. I loved seeing a woman unafraid and unabashedly unconcerned with what other people thought about her or her family. As these thoughts were going through my mind I read through the latest issue of Segullah and was struck by the interview with Tom and Louise Plummer near the end.  In it Louise Plummer says that one of the things she hates about our culture is that we are taught to be good examples to our children and others– by being things we are not. I don’t want to put on a facade to be a good example.  I am good, just the way I am. I don’t want people to have to be fake to be good examples because it makes the rest of us honest people look really bad.

Plus, I think that there are many aspects of my behavior and my aunt’s that would have been diminished if we were trying to be the stereotypical good example. She was tough, proud, and unafraid. I am bold, opinionated, and an open book. I don’t want my kids or friends to miss out on this part of my example because I am trying to be what I think I am supposed to be.

What kind of example do you set for others? Is it something  you think about? What are some of the “good” and “bad” examples you have? Do you ever change your innate behavior in order to be a “good” example? Have you ever benefited from someone’s “bad” example?


  1. I swear, and I have kids. Of course, full disclosure, I’m not a member of the church anymore. That said, I change my swearing when I’m around my kids. I only swear around my kids when I’m super angry (such as when I encounter a crazy driver). I also don’t swear *at* my kids. When I’m not around my kids, I let my language just go wherever (again, context is important. I wouldn’t swear in a job interview, for example–well, unless the interviewer did it first. maybe). As it is, my kids have heard some terrible things come out of my mouth. But I tell them flat out that those are grown-up words, and they’re not to use them. This has worked pretty well for us (er, yes. I guess I am trying to enable your swearing 😉 ).

  2. I quit swearing when my kids were little because I don’t think it’s cute to hear vulgar language issue from a child’s mouth. Once my kids hit the teens and picked up swearing on their own, I felt free to continue my own favorite expletives.

    Now that I have grandchidren, I’ve had to curb my expressiveness in their presence.

  3. This reminds me of a story my dad used to tell. He was the youngest of four boys and, as a teenager, the only one still at home. One night he was sitting at dinner with his parents when his dad turned to his mom and said, “Mama, do you think the boy is old enough now that I can stop eating spinich to set a good example? Because I REALLY HATE spinich.”
    I think we walk a fine line when it comes to setting an example. On the one hand, we do need to take some care, particularly around young children, to not teach a norm of bad behavior. On the other hand, we don’t want our children to grow up, learn the truth about us, and be completely disallusioned. Of course, there’s always the question of how you define “bad behavior” too. The examples we had set for us as children have a lot to do with how we judge others, how we define behavior.
    My single New Year’s resolution this year is to be more authentic, but defining that is a whole other issue.

  4. Lessie and Course Correction: Fantastic advice. I’m trying to figure that all out right now. I know swearing is such a piddly example, but I was using it to try and get at some of the larger things that we do to be “examples” and is that a good thing or not? What do you guys think?

    CatherineWO: Ohhh. I like that resolution and you are right it can get a little tricky. What is “good” for you may or may not be “good” for all the other people in your life. However, authenticity is and should always be something to strive for.

    My good friend’s dad recently left their family for another woman and all the LDS things he’s ever taught them. It’s really shaken them all to the core and while he says he’s been struggling for awhile, none of the kids knew anything about it. They’ve all really had a hard time with this deception. So I do think that “setting a good example” when its a lie is a bad thing, dishonest, and can do damage.

  5. What I want is integrity. What I like most about not swearing is it means I am genuine and sincere. I can be myself anywhere. I don’t change how I talk whether I am speaking in church, speaking to my kids, speaking to my child’s teacher, speaking professionally, speaking to my best friend.
    I strive to have that integrity in all I say. If someone from another race listened in on my conversation would they be offended? If the person I was speaking about listened in on my conversation would their feelings be hurt? I’m not saying that I never say anything negative, but I try to honest, direct, humble, confident and understanding in everything I say. I try to be the real me, the me I have spent my life becoming. I think you can be assertive and direct without harsh language.

  6. I’m a “head swearer”. Or when I am alone. Or with friends who don’t care one way or the other. I try to be respectful of who I am with. I don’t swear around my husband as it bothers him. Nor my mom. But my sisters are fair game.

    You’ve struck a cord by referring to this as deception. I agree, to a point. For example, last month I agreed to bring dinner to a mom who had just come out of surgery. The day came and with it a severe head cold (for me). In hind sight, I should have never cooked for another family with all of those cold germs hovering around me, but I prefer to follow through with assignments even if it means setting aside my common sense. I made a big double batch of lasagna even though I felt lousy. I was running late. I remembered that my lasagna pan was elsewhere, so I substituted a pan that was too small. The lasagna sauce bubbled way over, scorching the inside of the oven. Black smoke was rolling into the kitchen in waves. As I was pulling the pans out of the oven, I burned myself. Without thinking of who was around, I let out a “D%^# it!” Turned around and there is my 13yr old daughter gaping, “Mom!” And the funny thing of it was that all I could think about was : There. Now she knows a bit of who I really am.

  7. I took a linguistics course recently and studied swear words a bit. One of the things I found most fascinating is that the nature of your languages “naughty words” can tell you about the culture itself. Most swear words have to do with sex, bodily functions, or religion. All of our worst words are about sex, which is clearly evidenced by our cultural aversion and avoidance of sex. On the other had, if you said “chalice!” in France, you would hear gasps all around.

    Just an interesting thought. I always wished I could swear more, but after hearing my friend of the same age swear conversationally, I realized how crude and unintelligent it sounds. I swear occasionally while I drive or when I’m angry, but I find that using swearing in conversation sort of defeats the purpose of swearing at all. If you say a swear words a hundred times a day, it’s not really so taboo anymore, is it?

  8. As a person I have developed my own set of standards of what I consider honorable behavior that I respect and appreciate in others and which reflect values and behaviors that I would love to have because I love those behaviors (not because I’m supposed to like them).

    When I behave in those ways I am not “setting an example” for my children. I am living what I love best with my children. My kids know what I love and why I love it. They also know when I slip and do something that doesn’t reflect the behavior I love. And they understand why I apologize for it when I do that.

    If you love tricking people more than you love being honest with them your kids will pick up on that, even if you are trying very hard to not trick others when your kids are around. If you love the sense of power that swearing gives you more than you love calmer language, your kids will figure that out even if you curb your tongue when in their presence. If you love violent video games your kids will pick up on that, even if you only play sesame street ones with them.

    When I try to act a certain way in order to set a good example when I really love a different way I set myself up for a serious bout of anxiety. I can’t live peacefully with myself that way. I either need to change what I’m doing or change what I love. Either one is possible. And if I go through that process of change, the dilemma disappears.

    I have found that I need to determine, honestly, in my soul, what I sense is the most honorable and worthy and light-filled way to live, count the cost and decide whether or not it’s worth it and if it is, gather resources and support to make it enjoyable and doable. And then you’ve got to experiment with it and embrace it and enjoy it and make it a part of you whether your kids are watching or not or whether they seem to care or not. They know what the real you is whether you are living it or faking it.

    If you are not sure what you thoughtfully love best and you hope your children will love best, then take the time to figure that out. It is only when we move from appearances to thoughtful reality and principle-based decisions that the conundrum ceases to entangle us.

  9. I like this idea of living authentically. Sometimes I feel that I don’t – seems I often have a conversation with myself about it. That said – swearing really isn’t in my nature though the occasional expletive has escaped my lips in frustration or anger. I don’t like to hear coarse language in free flow.

  10. Wonderful post, Whoa-man. I absolutely loved reading about your aunt. I wish I had one like that. 🙂

    I’m primarily a head swearer when it comes to the worse four letter words, though I let ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ fly freely from my mouth. I don’t do it more mainly because my husband doesn’t like it, and I don’t have strong feelings that clamping down on the worse words stifles my authenticity.

    What to do about the kids is a dilemma. I think one of the earlier commentors had a good idea. Some words are for grown ups, and not kids. And if I let something fly around them, maybe I can present it as such.

  11. Is it necessarily being unauthentic if we don’t do something around others because it is offensive? I think it shows respect. I have had friends who knew I didn’t swear and didn’t swear around me, although I knew they swore in other situations.
    It sounds to me that those who are swearing aren’t necessarily attached to those particular words, but more that they are feeling the need to go against the “accepted”. I can understand that feeling. but I would suggest that perhaps there are different ways to be authentic and do this. I got the idea that the author of this article respected her aunt, not because she swore, but because of her self-confidence and because she seemed not to care what others thought of who she was. I think there are ways to show some of these qualities without swearing and using language that is known to offend.
    I can’t explain exactly why these words are so negatively powerful, but in the culture we are in, they are still vulgar to many. Why are these words so powerful? Are you trying to say that by using them, they lose their power?

  12. This is a little O/T, but funny. Since having kids, I try not to swear as much, but the kids still know quite a few swear words. We’ve talked to them about how we shouldn’t swear and neither should they. We’ve also tried to emphasize that they shouldn’t use words that they don’t know the meaning of, or use words out of context. As a result, I have a story to share…my 8 year old is at an age where swearing is funny and she is trying to figure out ways she can use swear words without getting in trouble for using the words in the wrong way.
    A couple of months ago she says, “I figured out how to use a swear word, and you can’t get mad at me,” “OK,” I said, “how?” She says “I rode an *ss to school.” I told her not that wasn’t very funny and to stop coming up with ways to swear. I guess she didn’t listen because she came in a couple of days ago, and said, “I know how to use another swear word – Trooper (our male dog) is a son-of-a-b*tch.” I tried to scold her, but she’s right that our dog is the “son of a female dog”, which she pointed out to me is the definition of b*tch. Unfortunately, I can’t stop laughing at that one.

    • This reminds me of many family trips over both the Hoover and the Glen Canyon Dams.
      “Look at all that dam water!”
      “Yeah and it’s probably full of dam fish!”

      • We visited Hoover Dam over Christmas break, and that joke just never gets old. All the guides there do it, too: “Right this way to the dam gift shop.” “Last chance to use the dam bathrooms before you get on the dam elevator.”

      • This reminds me of my family’s infamous line “we are going to take the Dam road to the temple.” There are two ways to the Oakland temple from my Mom’s house, one through the congested Oakland Maze and the back way on San Pablo Dam Road (which everyone in the area refers to as the Dam Road) and the Caldecutt tunnel. When my sister got married, her future in-laws actually asked why everyone was swearing at the prospect …

        Other than that, I come from a family that sometimes swears but not too much. I’ve noticed I started swearing more in the past few years but sometimes there really isn’t a word substitution.

      • Reminds me of two JG kKimball quotes,” I wont go to hell for swearing because I repent to d@AM fast.”

        And the other story goes like this, One day he was walking back from lunch to church headquarters. It was a rainy day and a car went past him and splashed him big time, Passerby’s could see him raising his fist and swearing,” S@# of a B$%^& have you no respect for the priesthood?” and he kept on walking

    • In Gospel Doctrine, one brother was reading from the Book of Mormon, and changed the passage slightly to end “.. and beaten like a dumb donkey.”

  13. I think to some extent parenting is necessarily hypocritical. We want our kids to be better than ourselves, so we quite often ask them to do things that we can’t/won’t/don’t do. I think it is only a problem when we *require* our kids to do the things we ourselves can’t.

    I think living authentically is less about auditing your behavior (or not) around certain people (which is something that can be necessary (for jobs), or respectful (for people you care about)), and more about knowing what sort of person you want to be and letting that be your motivation, rather than letting other people’s expectations be your motivation.

  14. Loved two of three’s story and I agree with LovelyLauren. Swearing in conversation daily just sounds completely ignorant to me. But if I stub my toe, get hurt, drop something and it breaks or is ruined, I usually let out a damnit or sentence involving the word hell. I’ve just never thought of these words as swear words. Everyone in my family throws them around as commonly as Mormons throw around the word heck or gosh, (which i also have issues with.) I don’t do it all the time, and when I do it I only feel like I’ve sworn because I know if anyone in the church heard me they’d think I was swearing. I think swear words are so subjective so I have a hard time pin-pointing what is “bad.” Growing up I knew if I heard s**t or the F word someone was truly pissed off, but the damnits were just everyday life. I don’t even know where to start on the “good example” issue for my child. I’m struggling to define that right now. But doesn’t every mom struggle with what kind of mother they want to be for their children? It will probably be too late by the time I’ve figured out who I want to be.

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