Your mother told you this: Using curse words makes people will think you’re less educated than you are.
And it turns out that’s true on social media, too, at least for people who swear on Twitter. In a series of studies, social psychologists and computer scientists from the US, Germany, and Australia analyzed public tweets to assess what inferences people make from them.
When someone swore in their Twitter posts, participants classified them in the group of people without any college degree. Sometimes this assumption was accurate, but participants tended to over-attribute profanity and conversational language like “lol,” “wanna,” and “gonna” to the non-college-educated group.
For one of the trials, 481 participants were asked to categorize 1,000 authors of tweets by their education level based solely on the content of their social media posts. The researchers used a form of artificial intelligence called natural language processing (NLP) to separate stereotypes that were “plausible” from ones that were incorrect.
Instead of starting with a set of groups and asking people what behaviors they associate with them, the researchers showed a set of behaviors—depicted via the choice of language used on social media—and asked people to guess the identity of the person tweeting. Swearing was a “highly salient” example of inaccurate stereotyping.
In reality, the sample of tweet authors was split evenly—33% at each education level. The participants overestimated the number of tweets from people who had attended no college, and only 4% of the authors were presumed to be highly educated.
“Those with advanced degrees were exaggeratedly assumed to mention technology (e.g., “connect,” “tech,” “web”),” the study, published in Social Psychological and Personalty Science, says. Conversational language automatically downgraded the tweeters’ presumed education levels, and participants assumed that people with advanced degrees never swear—which was untrue. “I think this is because people have especially rigid stereotypes for this group,” lead author Jordan Carpenter of Duke University told Quartz. “They expect them to all talk like tweed-wearing English professors.”
Different trials in the same study asked participants to make judgments about age, gender and political affiliation, revealing a host of other unfounded stereotypes. Anyone who wrote about technology was classified as male. A touch of femininity in the word choice conveyed that someone was a liberal, and masculine language indicated to participants that someone was a conservative.
And while swearing is often associated with vulgar, uncouth, and offensive behavior, recent research has shown that swearing can actually be good for you: It’s an emotional release, it helps you cope with pain, and sometimes it makes you more persuasive. It’s probably okay to do it in front of your kids too.