Consider why we swear out loud at the asshole in traffic. We often know that he cannot hear us in his car. Indeed, we are especially prone to do this while driving alone (because passengers may be disturbed or offended), knowing full well that no one else can hear. Is there a point to this? Is it simply that there is pleasure in venting, the gratification of a cathartic, ejaculatory burst? No, or at least not entirely. We do this, rather, in order to recognise ourselves, as a proxy for the recognition of others. We are reassuring ourselves that we do deserve better treatment and that this is something that any reasonable onlooker, were one present, would agree with.
The phenomenon reflects our more general need to keep ourselves intelligible to others. Consider, by comparison, “response cries” such as aha, bleh, eeuw, goody, hmph, oh, oops, phew, whee, yikes or yuck. Why do we spontaneously blurt out these words, often in a moment of awkwardness? As psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker explains, we do so with others in mind:
“A person who knocks over a glass might be a klutz, but if he says whoops, then at least we know that he didn’t intend the outcome and regrets that it happened. A person who says yuck after dripping pizza sauce on his shirt or stepping in dog faeces is someone we understand better than someone who seems not to care.”
Following sociologist Erving Goffman, Pinker suggests that we do this in order to “signal our competence and shared understanding of the situation to a generic audience,” where the audience may be imagined or real:
“One goal… is to reassure onlookers that we are sane, competent, reasonable human beings, with transparent goals and intelligible responses to the current situation. Ordinarily this requires that we do not talk to ourselves in public, but we make an exception when a sudden turn of events puts our rationality or effectiveness to the test. My favourite example is when we do an about-face in a hallway and mutter a soliloquy explaining to no one in particular that we forgot something in our office, as if to reassure any onlookers that we are not a lunatic who lurches around at random.”
The same goes for swearing out loud in the car. Pinker says cathartic swearing is a response to “sudden challenge to our goals or well-being.” But that isn’t quite right; swearing with the term “asshole” is a response specifically to a person. Pinker himself notes in passing that “people shout Asshole! when they suffer a sudden affront from a human perpetrator, but not when they pick up a hot casserole or have a mousetrap snap on their finger.” […]
So swearing is, in a small way, means of upholding one’s rights, seen as a kind of public status or standing. In that case, one can equally take a performative stand without harsh words. When an asshole is loudly talking on his cell phone for a long time with others around, one might say out loud: “Sir, given your cell phone behaviour, I’m tempted not simply to ask you to keep it down but to inject a cutting remark or perhaps speak of you in less dignified words.” When the asshole chuckles and brushes the comment off, and even when he lashes out, it won’t undermine the point of having spoken up.
Aaron James – Assholes: A Theory