Notes for my speech on October 29, 2019 at the Toastmasters Club Toast of Berkeley.
Swearwords are words we are not supposed to use, but most of us use them anyway. Some people use swearwords all the time to emphasize their spoken communications. Other people, like me, use swearwords rarely, mostly in selected contexts, to add a bit of color to a story or a statement. Very few people, I believe, never use swearwords.
Very few people, I believe, never use swearwords.
In the US, swearwords are very few and almost uniformly used across the country. In Italy, every town has its own set of swear words. Italians are very creative, even with swear words. In Italy, gondoliers in Venice are known for swearing all the time heavily. In my country, we also have several swear gestures, but I learn that also Americans can express nasty concepts just with gestures. In Italy, based on the swear words you use, people can tell the city or region you grow up.
Swear words are among the first words we learn when we approach a new language, or we travel to a new country. I never studied Arab, but I still remember a few Arab swear words I learned from a North African friend when I was a teenager. But don’t worry, I’m not going to share those swearwords with you.
Swear words are among the first words we learn when we approach a new language, or we travel to a new country
If you are not a native speaker, using a swearword properly requires a deep understanding of the language, sensitivity and the culture of the country. It’s a minefield where we should walk very carefully. We need to be aware that a misplaced swearword can easily blow up in our faces and create a very embarrassing situation.
Long-time ago, I had a British friend named Brian that was studying the Swedish language. He felt very, very confident about that language. One night we went together to a party where almost everybody was from Sweden, the perfect occasion for my friend Brian to practice. In the middle of a conversation, my friend dropped a very Swedish swearword, to show off his familiarity with the language. Suddenly the entire room froze, everybody stopped talking and turned at my friend Brian. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life.
Thanks to Brian, I learn a valuable lesson: never use a swear word unless you are super-confident with the language.
Never use a swear word unless you are super confident with the language.
A few years later, I used that knowledge to my advantage. I had an American friend, Scott, visiting for the summer. We were spending time with friends when Scott asked me the meaning of a swearword that our friends were using continuously. I could not resist, and I told Scott that the word was just a filler, like “great.” The next evening we wanted to introduce Scott to the mayor of our small town. The opportunity was a typical Italian social event, the aperitivo. And then, in the middle of a conversation with the major, Scott started to insert the swear word into every sentence, to show confidence with the Italian language. The major was looking at the ceiling to avoid eye contact with the rest of the group. The situation was out of control. I stepped in, and I whispered to Scott, revealing the real meaning of that word. His face went red, then white, and then red again. The situation was so funny that eventually everybody started to laugh, including the major.
Always double-check your vocabulary before an important meeting in a language that is not your first language
The main lesson is to always double-check your vocabulary before an important meeting in a language that is not your first language. But don’t worry too much. Eventually a laugh will fix everything!