Cognitive Daily

Last week’s Casual Fridays study filled up so quickly that many of those who wanted to participate weren’t able to. This was due to our survey provider’s limits on the number of responses. After a preliminary look at the data, it does look like it would be helpful if we could get more respondents.

Now I’ve located a survey provider that allows us to collect unlimited responses, so for $15, it seemed worth it to give this new provider a shot. If everyone likes the new survey site, we’ll ditch the old one and go with this one. However, I’d ask that if you’ve participated in this study previously, please don’t participate again.

As a reminder, here’s the description from last Friday:

#@*& it if I couldn’t come up with a shorter Casual Friday study this week. When we started doing Casual Fridays a year and a half ago, the goal was to keep them short — less than five questions, if possible. They’ve gradually expanded from week to week, but we’ve typically been able to keep to around ten questions.

But this week I came up with a *@&&ing good idea for a study that just wouldn’t cooperate with the length limits. Fortunately, the subject matter tends to be quite arousing: offensive language. What words really get you *&#$ing angry? Now we’ll finally be able to find out. I’ve picked out 11 of the foulest, most shocking words I can imagine, and I’m going to ask you to rate them along 5 different dimensions. There’ll be a total of 58 questions.

Click Here to participate.
(Obviously, if you think you might be disturbed by the language of this study, you’re advised not to participate — and you might not want to complete it in a public place)

You’ll have until 6:10 a.m. on Friday, April 27 to participate. Also, if you have any complaints or observations about this new survey site, please let me know in the comments.


  1. #1 M
    April 25, 2007

    You probably should have included a question about where the responder lives – I’ve had the impression that here in the UK we’re far more potty-mouthed that in the USA, and it might be interesting to control for that sort of cultural bias. Also, for example ‘Ho’ isn’t a word you’d use in the UK(I think perhaps slut or slapper might be an equivalent).

  2. #2 Sean
    April 25, 2007

    Alot of these words depend on the context and environment, i know it’s asked when at the workplace… or when directed at you etc, but even still words are different depending on the rest of the sentence and dialog.

  3. #3 pelf
    April 25, 2007

    I was one of those “wanted to participate last week but weren’t able to. But I participated just a while ago.

    And I can’t tell the difference between the previous and the current survey provider simply because I’ve never seen the previous one.

    But it was a breeze. Simple, and straight-to-the-point 🙂

  4. #4 hypatia cade
    April 25, 2007

    I actually think I’d find some of the words more offensive if they were used in a joke rather than used in a more factual manner.

  5. #5 outeast
    April 25, 2007

    I started to take it but quit – there’s just not enough context. What does it mean when the questionnaire says ‘in general’, for instance? What is a ‘general’ use of gay? ‘That’s so gay’? ‘Julian Clarey is a gay comedian’? ‘yo, gayboy’? Similar questions could be – must be! asked for almost all of these works.

    When it comes to ‘used jokingly by a friend’ there is still too much space for variation: I would find all of these words harmless in some humourous and/or ironic contexts, but the same words (or some of them) in other jokes would have me freezing up. Even ‘directed at you’ and ‘in the workplace’ do not help much.

    Then there’s what constitutes ‘use’ of vocabulary… Literal use? Ironic use? Reference? This is well-documented as a problem as the LanguageLog cru have discussed (for example, here)… To take one personal example, the useage of nigger as a racial epithet is abhorrent to me yet I have written the word many times in the last fortnight or so due to being involved in a discussion of racial abuse and taboo avoidance. Evidently I should admit to this in this questionnaire, but I am loath to do so since I know that this would group me (statistically) with those indulge in racist humour (for example).

    I just can’t see this survey being meaningful.

  6. #6 Kevin
    April 25, 2007

    I have to agree with many of the above comments about context, but knowing how surveys I’ve taken with Cog before, I finished it anyways. It probably a ruse and has nothing to do with foul language. Maybe it’s really a study of the how men and women perceive the words penis and vagina… Who knows?

    Incidentally, being in the medical research field, I use both of those words daily, in many non-offensive situations.

  7. #7 decrepitoldfool
    April 25, 2007

    I had that same negative feeling about context as well. Is the n* word directed at another living person as a pejorative? Or is it in a reading of Huckleberry Finn? There are people who can’t see the difference, of course. For me the difference between offensive and not-offensive hinges on the intent to harm another person. For example if I call someone a “tool” that doesn’t even raise keyword sensitivity but in fact I’m insulting their ability to think and act independently.

  8. #8 Peapod
    April 25, 2007

    The survey site is great–easy to use, although I would have preferred having all the questions on a single page. (Then again, that may be one of the experimental manipulations.)

    I had a very hard time with interpreting context, as there are words I would only use with close friends, or only at home, or never in public. Some people could direct particular words at me that I would otherwise consider offensive, but not inappropriate for our relationship or the particular exchange. Similarly, workplaces vary so widely that I would expect interpretation of the results to rely heavily on questionable assumptions about “typical” workplaces. Words I wouldn’t think of as genuinely offensive could be taboo at work because of sensitivity to sexual harrassment (nobody’d better be discussing his penis). On the other hand I once worked in a bar and the language in the back room was extremely “informal”.

    Joking use is likewise difficult to interpret: it depends on who’s telling the joke, the relationship between those present, relative social status among tellers and listeners, whether it’s a punchline joke or kidding around, the physical location, emotional context of the interaction, perceived aggressive intent, etc., etc.

    I’m left with several questions: what kinds of a priori assumptions are being made; what the chances are that respondents can interpret the question in the way the experimenters intended; and how accurately can a respondent self-report occasional or frequent use of words. F***, I have no idea how often I really say “f***”.

  9. #9 Katy
    April 25, 2007

    I think there should have also been a question about sexual orientation of the responder, some of those words are likely to offend differently based on one’s orientation.

  10. #10 kat
    April 25, 2007

    I came here to say exactly the same thing as Katy. It could just be as simple as adding more boxes to the ethnicity section, and ask instead about minority status.

    It also might have been interesting to ask about the words when used by a member of a particular minority as opposed to members of other groups. For instance, when a black comedian uses the N word, or when a gay man calls his gay friend a “fag”… context matters a LOT for some of these words. There is a huge difference between self-professed feminists talking about their cunts (a la Vagina Monologues) and a man calling a woman (or another man) the same word.

  11. #11 Pseudonym
    April 25, 2007

    I find the context issue important, too.

    The word “suck” has so many non-crude uses that it hardly matters. And “directed at me”? Hell, if someone referred to me using the “n” word or the “c” word, I’d be more offended that I was in the presence of a stupid person who has no clue how to be offensive to a white male than by any use of the language.

    And “gay”? Saying “he’s gay” can be perfectly factual, even in polite company, whereas saying “that’s so gay” is usually mildly impolite.

  12. #12 benk
    April 26, 2007

    Many people have mentioned the context issue, but I also that think you should have included a question about sexual orientation since some of the questions dealt with that.

  13. #13 Alan Hope
    April 26, 2007

    I agree with comment #1 regarding British usage. “Ho” would only ever be used comically, and the f- and c-words are bandied about with greater ease within certain environments. The c-word in particular, while not fit for polite society, seems not to have the blistering effect it does in the US. The N-word is less common overall, whereas words like “Paki” are more common. People still talk of the “Paki’s” to mean a shop open all hours, or a “Chinky” to mean a Chinese take-away, who would be utterly horrified to hear those words used to refer to people. The words’ meaning has been divorced from its origin.

    This whole subject is a minefield, as I’m sure you already realised.

  14. #14 outeast
    April 26, 2007

    I find the taboo avoidance going on here pretty comical. When making a reference to the word ‘nigger’, for example, why is writing ‘the n* word’ better? Is it out of concern that there might be Young Readers who have yet to become acquainted with the word itself? Presumably not – but since the assumption must be that those reading will immediately identify the word intended, what function is served? It seems quite a***** to me.

    Actually, that might be an interesting toic for a follow-up study… whether a sentence such as ‘Usage of the word “nigger” is unacceptable’ is more offensive than ‘Usuage of the n-word is unacceptable’, for example. In a rational community I would hope not!

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