I wanted to be heard.
Three years ago, my New Year’s resolution was to stop swearing. I decided to cut f-bombs, use shoot rather than the ubiquitous s-word, and call people a-holes (not to their faces).
The most civilized and respected people in my community don’t use fuck, shit, or asshole when talking. When these words sprang from my mouth, people looked at me like I had clubbed a seal pup. My friend Jessica said to me, “You’re so educated. Can’t you come up with other words to express yourself?” Not really.
It wasn’t always this way. I grew up not swearing. My parents didn’t swear, my relatives didn’t swear, and no one in my circle of friends swears. Yet, as I began teaching high school, words began to creep into my vocabulary. When I was driving and someone cut me off, I would shout to no one, “Asshole!” As I walked through the halls of the high school, I was bombarded with students discussing without hesitation their latest exploits with expletives strewn throughout their stories.
At first I could ignore the dialog rocks thrown about, but as the years progressed, the rocks became pebbles and their ripples spread on my pond of conversations as words would creep into my vocabulary without thought or consideration.
I felt that swear words fully captured my sentiment and angst for people or events that couldn’t be expressed any other way. I like to classify f-bombs, s-words, and a-holes as my amplifiers. When these amplifiers are used judicially and with care, what I say can be acknowledged by the listener, making me feel heard. When every other word is one of these amplifiers, it loses its potency.
One summer I went backpacking with a friend to complete Yosemite’s High Sierra Loop. The trail consists of 50 miles of mountain climbs, thin ridges, streams, and dry granite, as we made our way to one of the five camps. Every day we hiked about 10 miles with 40-pound packs on our backs through picturesque vistas replete with pristine mountains and brilliant skies.
As we hiked dusty and rocky trails, we came across fellow backpackers and asked the proverbial hiker’s question, “How much further to the top?” The answer was always, “Mile, mile and a half.” It was rarely only a mile or a mile and a half, but it’s backpacking culture to say so.
On one particularly grueling day we stopped to sip water to satisfy our unquenchable thirst as the noonday sun blazed down on us. As we looked up to the top of the mountain, we passed a woman who seemed stuck in the 1960s, outfitted with a head bandana, Grateful Dead tats, and cutoff jeans.
I asked, “Seriously, is this the top? This seems to be taking forever and I can’t take much more.”
She said, “Don’t you just want to say,” and at the top of her lungs she yelled, “Fuuuuuuuuuuuuck!” I almost thought I could hear her voice echo across the mountains. To this day, her usage of fuck was the most elegant and cathartic I’ve ever experienced. She used the word once and appropriately to reverberate the empathy I needed at the moment. Would, “Oh, boy, this is a tough uphill,” match my extreme distress?
For three years, my New Year’s resolution was successful: I didn’t utter a single fuck, shit, or asshole. I reflected on the deeper causes of when and why I cursed. I often used asshole when talking about someone who treated me awfully. Saying, “Wow, that really hurt,” or “He was really mean,” didn’t adequately express my pain. Listeners rarely acknowledged what I said and give faint, “Oh, huh,” rather than, “That’s the worst.” I felt disregarded.
I began to understand that as a woman, I could be ignored or minimized. In many cases, a man would say the exact thing I had just said, but he got the credit. I realized women often heard my story as only a means to launch their own story. My anger and frustration became suppressed under the crush of others not really hearing or acknowledging what I said.
I had to return to my three amplifiers rather than explode like Mount Vesuvius.
I now use my amplifiers after I evaluate my subject with several different litmus tests. Do they tell jokes? Frankly, any joke will do. I’m not talking about an anecdote about how your kid threw up. I mean a real joke with a punch line that makes me belly laugh. What kind of movies and television shows do they watch? Have they mentioned an R-rated movie they’ve watched recently? Disney princess movies will immediately disqualify them.
Will they be surprised the amplifiers came out of my mouth? I usually say the word shit as a test. If they show a look of horror, I say, “Oh, excuse my French,” and watch myself very carefully in the future. Coincidently, once I break the swearing seal with a friend, often they feel free to speak French as well.
Testing my theory, I sat across from Jessica, who is a sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice kind of gal. I talked to her at length about my frustration with my health insurance. She stared blankly at me. I felt unheard.
“It’s fucked up.” I said.
“That’s serious,” she replied. She finally heard me.