By Robert Folsom | March 5, 2013
When my eldest son was around eight years old he asked me about using swear words. The conversation went something like this.
Son: “Dad, sometimes I hear kids my age using bad words. That’s not okay, is it?”
Dad: “Not really. Kids your age usually say bad words because they think it’s cool. Or when they want to upset adults.”
Son: “But is it ever okay to say those words?”
Dad: “Well, look. If you use a hammer and smash your thumb by accident and then say a bad word, I’ll probably worry more about your thumb. Otherwise just use the good words you already know.”
This was years ago, but I wouldn’t change my answer-to-an-eight-year-old even if I could. In fact it’s what came to mind as I considered the deeper point, namely that exceptional words are often inseparable from exceptional events.
Most of us can easily relate to this as individuals — in the case of a smashed thumb, etc., etc. Yet recent data suggests that this truth applies even more broadly to the exceptional words used among groups of people during exceptional events.
Such as: The frequency of swear words among Twitter users in a country in a time of social upheaval.
The widely-respected RAND Corporation quantified this phenomenon as an observable trend, which unfolded during the nine months after the June 2009 presidential election in Iran (the ‘Green Revolution’).
RAND studied some 2.7 million tweets (with the #iranelection hashtag), specifically the incidence of swearing and words that reflect positive or negative mood. Their finding was clear:
“[The] use of swear words on Twitter tracked more closely than any other indicator did with events and protests on the ground, and it did the best job of forecasting when protests would occur” (italics added).
Read the details of this amazing analysis in Euan Wilson’s article “When Emotions Ran High,” now in the current issue of The Socionomist. The issue also includes a review of Peter Atwater’s book Mood and Markets, and considers the similarities between the politics in pre-Nazi Germany and the extreme political trend today in Greece.