A client question with many moving parts. Let’s set up our definitions first.

Swearing: the use of offensive language. Most swearing is comprised of references to body parts or elimination. Other swear words are related to religious tenets.

Innuendo: a sexually suggestive remark.

Both of these are what we call “taboo” [1]. Taboo means something restricted or prevented by social customs or mores. There are many taboo pieces of language. General rule of thumb: if you’d chide a child for saying it, it’s probably taboo.

Does swearing really matter anymore? Isn’t the internet full of innuendo?

Yes and yes. But there’s a difference between the languages we use personally and the languages we use professionally. Do you speak to your loved ones the same way you speak to your employer, or potential clients? Probably not.

There are five key considerations in whether using taboo language matters to you:

  • current social mores
  • the innuendo itself and the psychological signifier
  • implicit discourse, or the things we imply between the lines
  • permissivity, or what you’re allowing in your presence, or among your audience
  • the image you project

Each of these will affect your audience. Which means that to decide on your boundaries, you need to think about your audience.

Norm-breaking

Taboos are always norm-breaking. This is exactly what it sounds like: something that breaks away from the norm. We do this when we swear, especially if we use a swear word for emphasis. That says hey! this is more important/painful/wonderful/irritating than all those other scenarios!

We also break norms when we question our environment. Social Justice Warriors are excellent norm-breakers, who challenge the status quo with intent and meaning.

In marketing, norm-breaking can separate us from the community we’re trying to reach [2]. Marketing writing, content marketing, and copy all tie into collectives and communities. If we break too far from the norm, we alienate our audience. Understanding the meaning of taboo in a given community is necessary to knowing what’s okay and what’s not.

The Forbidden Pyramid & Social Mores

Taboo is linked to current social mores, or customs and manners. These change as society changes. In the US, Australia, and the UK, this means most mores reflect religious (usually Christian) values. That said, not all taboo things are created equal.

If we think of milder, sometimes-okay taboo as the bottom of the pyramid and never-okay taboo as up the top, we get something that reflects our values. An easy way to visualize this is to use film ratings.

Pyramid using film ratings and colors

Adapted from MPAA.org

The higher up the pyramid you climb, the more taboo you get.

Every community will have its own Forbidden Pyramid. What constitutes taboo will change with the standard socioeconomic factors, but also with collective identities and communities.

Think about your market and audience. What would their Forbidden Pyramid look like?

Belonging and Rapport

Now we know what taboo is, and that swearing and innuendo are taboo, we can look at how they affect our work.

If you use something on the lower end of the forbidden pyramid now and then, you’re probably okay. It’s mild, and likely acceptable. But if you use it too much, you cross into “not-one-of-us” territory.

While this won’t result in Shirley Jackson Lottery level stoning, it’s still not pretty. Content marketing and excellent copy depend on rapport and trust. Using too much taboo language makes it almost impossible to establish a sender-receiver relationship. How to know what’s taboo? Think about a teenager. If they’d giggle at it, axe it.

Implicit discourse

This is what we say between the lines — it’s the textual version of matching actions to words. Some taboo phrases, like “getting lucky,” carry the implicit discourse that “women don’t belong here.” They enforce the boys’ club narrative.

If you’re thinking about using swearing or innuendo, think about why you’re using it, and what it says to your receivers. What does it do to them, as an audience?

Does it empower them?

Does it steal their power?

Does it affirm something important?

Does it alienate anyone?

If you’re not sure, do some research. Look at other uses of this language in your target demographic. How is it being used? What’s the effect? The best way to understand how a community uses language is to go out and listen to it.

Can implicit discourse really affect marketshare and income?

Let’s talk about our “getting lucky” example for a minute. It’s alienating to women. A title with this phrasing is probably a bad choice because:

  • Equality matters. If we can’t express equality in our words, how will we express it in our actions? Using such phrasing immediately calls all our other value statements into question.
  • You cut up your market. If you can be certain there’s no female audience for your work, your income might be unaffected. But that’s a highly unlikely scenario.

Permissivity and Image

What you write defines your audience’s perception of you as a person. Whether this is fair or not is immaterial. In most cases, an  audience has only your work to judge by. If you use questionable phrasing or words in your work, you grant permission to your audience to do the same thing. “I didn’t mean it that way” or “I was just joking” cannot negate that first blanket permission.

The title you use is a reflection of yourself. The words you choose for your book are a reflection of yourself. Think about your audience. Think about who you are and who you want to be. Select your words with care.

 

Notes:

[1] Note that there are specific meanings and uses for “taboo” in an academic context.

[2] There are times when we want to do this, but that’s another post.