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Miss Manners and Profanity

Well, yesterday’s post produced an interesting array of comments.  There are many I declined to approve in order to assuage any embarrassment commentators should have had at their own words but failed to embrace.  Miss Jeanne has saved you from yourself and worldwide shame.

Let’s start off with some of the ideas expressed in the more notable comments to defend the right to use profanity.

1.  Profanity is ubiquitous in modern society.  Get over it.  Accept it. 

So, if public begging became common, we should all accept it?  Bank deposit slips in wedding invitations, if done by nearly everyone, are just fine and dandy?   If the whole world goes mad with greed, we’ll jump right off that greedy cliff with them?  Uh, no.  Just because “lots of people do it” is not a logical argument that it is a right thing to do.

Profanity lowers the “tone” of a discussion no matter how you spin it otherwise.  It is viewed as unprofessional, indiscreet, an excessive expression of personal feelings and opinions, and selfish.

“Honor in etiquette sometimes demands setting standards higher than those in practice and encouraging people to live up to them.”  Judith Martin

2.  It’s just words.  People attach meanings to words.  Words cannot hurt us.

If words never hurt us this site would cease to exist.   I am in awe of people who claim that the use of profanity shouldn’t really bother anyone because it’s just words.  Such people must be the most tolerant folks on the planet, never being offended by anything anyone ever says, either deliberately or as blather, because, well, it’s just words.    Embarrassing personal remarks, intrusions into privacy, rude assumptions, cruel comments about appearance, greedy solicitations, backhanded compliments don’t really exist to hurt and offend…they are just words.   Sorry, I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid on this one.   Words can either be the most edifying tools in communicating or the most devastating, destructive way to bring someone down precisely because of the meaning collectively assigned by the culture to those words.

3.  Using profanity is “immensely satisfying”, “cathartic”, “confuses the heck out of people”.

The basic, fundamental rule of the etiquette of communication is that you speak to edify others, not yourself.   Miss Manners wrote that her advice often goes against a person’s declaration that they find it impossible not to convey their feelings regardless of the consequences to other people’s feelings and that many people seem to think that their opinions are required.  Profanity is the expression of personal feelings and opinions which many declare is “immensely satisfying” and “cathartic”.   We’d be silly to assume the speakers of such comments would actually mean that other people find it quite satisfying and cathartic to be the recipient of directed profanity or having simply overheard it.  To achieve catharsis and satisfaction implies retaliatory rudeness in response to someone else…verbal one upmanship to trump another with shock value.    It’s profanity for the sake of selfishness.   How rude.

4.  You can ask strangers to stop their vulgar utterances.  False.

Sorry, no one has the right to correct a stranger in public over the use of profanity.  However, Miss Manners does encourage using such people as examples to children of how not to behave in polite society.    Asking those with whom you have some kind of relationship to stop, be all means do so.  “I would prefer that you not use those words in conversations with me.  Thank you.”

5.  Substitutionary words are just as bad.

Which Miss Manners encourages:   “Compile a list of silly substitute words that sound somewhat like the offensive ones. “Oh, fudge,” for example. People have been doing this for years, not only to avoid offense, but to do the opposite: to slip in the offensive implication when the word was banned.   This is only a temporary measure. Miss Manners promises you that the ridiculousness of it will act to inhibit your impulse, and you will soon be saving the strong words for true emergencies.”


And now for the fun part since you’ve hung in and read this far….I have two copies of  Judith Martin’s (aka Miss Manners) book “Miss Manners’ Basic Training:  The Right Thing To Say” to give away to two lucky readers who respond to this post.  Winners chosen randomly by random.org.   This lovely little book is out of print which is a shame because it is one of the best books of her series (in my opinion) and one I often reread and refer back to.





Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Kristin October 22, 2011, 2:31 am

    I really appreciate this posting. I work in the automotive industry, and while I personally am trying to cut the liberal swearing I picked up in high school and college, it is very difficult around my colleagues!!

  • Gracie C. October 24, 2011, 8:51 pm

    At Mellowed-one – quite simply because free speech is only worth anything if you will fight equally to protect speech you dislike as you will to protect speech that you like. This, of course, does not apply to speech that has been deemed illegal (hate speech, yelling fire in a theater, etc). I’m not an offensive person. I don’t dress offensively, I don’t behave offensively, I’m a courteous driver, and a polite person. I say please and thank you always. But I have a bad days and get grumpy. I occasionally drop a curse where I probably shouldn’t. Quite frankly, I’d be terrified to live in a place where my right to be offensive is taken away, as “offensive” is ever so subjective, and I would not want to even think about who would be left in charge of determining what is and what isn’t. And that isn’t to say that speech has no consequence. If you want to choose to not associate with someone who cusses, a person can make their own judgement if altering their language to keep the friendship is worth it. If a person cusses at work and that is not acceptable, they run the risk of being fired. Free speech isn’t, and isn’t intended to be, speech without consequence, but each person does get to decide which outcomes are acceptable for themselves.

    And I agree with Edhla that your example was a horrible comparison.