Why the F*** Do Lawyers Curse So Much?

4 March, 2016

Missie Frandsen

Missie Frandsen


You know the idiom “curse like a sailor”? Well, sailors have f****** nothing on attorneys.

You read about us, see us on TV, cursing up a storm; in the office, the bar, in the courtroom, everywhere. We know the media portrays attorneys a bit flamboyantly, but as far as cursing goes, well . . . We polled our fellow lawyers for the most profane things they’ve heard during their careers and compared with our cursing TV counterparts. Can you guess which of these quotes are from real lawyers?  

“I got f***ed up and now I’m back here. Sh** happens.”

“Just shut the f*** up and move on from the deposition. I can even get you some g** d*** tissues so you can f***ing cry.”

“Are you f***ing kidding me right now? ***** f***ing *****, why the h*** can’t you do your sh**** job like a f****** g** f***h*** adult?”

“Why the sh**h*** are you in here? I have a f***ton of work to do, leave me the h***s*** alone.”

“Wow, what a f***tacular lack of intelligence, like seriously an a****** cr****a** f****** disaster.”

“C********* forgot the s***f*** meeting, like always.”

“You have a s****** case of f****** diarrhea.”

“Who the f*** are you?”

“Why don’t you shut your *********** ******* mouth and stop interrupting my ****** deposition, I run this *******, so sit the **** down.”

“I would more define it as my jurisprudential ****** being stretched.”

Would you be surprised that every single one was spoken by a real life lawyer? Apparently, not only do we curse an a******, we’re pretty creative about it. But why do swear so d*** much?

It’s All About The F****** Science

Cursing knows no boundaries. Regardless of your identity, culture, or religion, virtually everyone swears consistently throughout their life. It’s a universal constant; research shows that we swear an average of 0.3%-0.7% of the time By comparison, personal pronouns are used at a 1% rate in our speech. 90% of men and 83% of women swear regularly.

We lawyers, however, are special. Personality studies show that individuals who swear more have greater stress, more intense emotions, traits of dominance, hostility, and are Type A personalities. Who does that sound like?

Emotions and Violence

Think about the last time you swore. Most likely, it was an emotional reaction. Did Carol turn in her discovery late? Did intern Ian forget your coffee?  F****** d*****, why can’t Carol get her sh** together! ***** ******, Ian! You really needed that coffee! As lawyers, we’re constantly managing our emotions and work conflicts. “There are a lot of high stress professions,” says Yvette Hourigan, of the Kentucky Lawyer Assistance Program. “Being a physician has stress. However, when the surgeon goes into the surgical suite to perform his surgery, they don’t send another physician in to try to kill the patient. You know, they’re all on the same team trying to do one job. In the legal profession, adversity is the nature of our game.” That’s a huge amount of emotional and mental stress that can lead to serious health problems, and violent outbursts.

When you’re surprised, angry, irritated or disappointed, swearing is an emotional release. In fact, your brain doesn’t actually recognize swear words as words, but condensed lumps of emotion stored in a different part of your brain, away from all other words. Language lives in the Wernicke and Broca part of your brain, while curse words are stored in the limbic system, which controls emotion. Further, cursing acts as an alternative to violence. In 1967, the Civil Liberties Union asked the U.S. Court of Appeals to overturn the public curing section of Washington’s disorderly conduct statute, arguing that a “healthy substitute for violence is as basic and vital to the ultimate health of a society as laughter or crying.”

Dominance

Over at Forbes, writer Victoria Pynchon states that “claiming the right to swear is claiming power”. Swearing is an act of dominance; “this power to decide one’s own path is often displayed in breaking of social rules, from invasion and interruption to casual swearing in polite company.”  In her book, Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, medieval literature expert Melissa Mohr traces swearing back to Roman times. Romans laid the foundation for obscenities, but based their cursing on dominance and submission. Men were categorized as active (dominant) or passive (submissive), and profanity was invented exclusively for dominant men to use against submissive men. “People have always sworn when they’ve hurt themselves, when they’re angry, when they’re happy,” says Mohr “But when it looks like aggression, it can be a dominant display. Swearing is a sign that the speaker is emotionally aroused.”

While swearing is universal now, it’s still about dominance in the workplace. Male attorneys and partners are more likely to swear, while women, associates, and support staff are less likely to swear, and more likely to be reprimanded if they do. You experience the linguistic dynamics of dominance every day, it’s easiest to find examples of dominance fights in depositions. The internet has a special love for depositions gone wild, and a perfect example is this classic fight with legendary mass tort attorney Joe Jamail and Edward Carstarphen.

If you can handle some serious profanity and wildly inappropriate insults, check out the video.

Solidarity

Language serves as a social function, and cursing is vital to building solidarity among friends, coworkers and communities. Sharing a lexicon of swear words and breaking social taboos (especially in the workplace), bonds people together. When you and a co-worker are spouting off about a case, you’re not only emphasising your frustration, but building comradery. Researchers at University of East Anglia discovered that swearing at work allows employees to voice their feelings, build solidarity, and cultivate relationships. The study, “Swearing at Work and Permissive Leadership Culture: When Anti-Social Becomes Social and Incivility Is Acceptable,” also found that humorous swearing relieves stress and brings groups closer together.

Pain

Multiple studies have shown that swearing increases the body’s pain tolerance. Researchers at Keele University in the UK asked participants to hold their hands in ice water for as long as possible. Researchers monitored pain perception, heart rate, fear, and anxiety while they asked their volunteers to repeat swear words, then neutral words. “When participants repeated a swear word, they were able to hold their hand in ice-cold water for, on average, some 40 seconds longer compared with when they repeated a non-swear word. In addition, participants reported reduced perceived pain in the swearing condition.”

But We Still Know When to Shut the F*** Up

Law firms may be hotbeds of profanity, but attorneys know when to shut the h*** up. I’ll be swearing up a storm in my office right up until a client knocks, or casually exchanging obscene barbs with fellow attorneys until we’re within earshot of a judge. It’s automatic, a professional switch that I’ve seen many a lawyer make. If you haven’t got that switch down and still occasionally slip up, get your sh** together. As awesome as it would be to let loose sometimes, you’re not cousin Vinny, and that sh** ain’t cute. Ask public defender Therese Garza, who is facing an ethics complaint for swearing in court, or suspended attorney Kathryn Abele.