Watch Your Mouth: Cursing in Meetings

Reflections in Recovery

Ruth Hock, AA’s first secretary
The sign is about 5” x 8.” It’s displayed prominently at the front edge of the table where the chairperson sits. “Watch Your Mouth,” it says. Some people seem totally oblivious to it. They curse right and left as if they were sitting at a bar watching a football game. We’re at an AA meeting. Supposedly we’ve come to share our experience, strength, and hope; to tell the story of what we were like, what happened, and what we are like now; of how we have changed and become new, sober men and women; to carry the message of our spiritual awakening.

Why then all the cursing? What is the message that carries? How does it fit in with our primary purpose? What does it contribute to our recovery and spiritual growth? How is it compatible with our admission of powerlessness, with being restored to sanity, with surrender, acceptance, serenity, and all the other principles we are called upon to practice?

Being at that meeting reminded me of my early days in AA. I first went to meetings in my old neighborhood. This was a bohemian section of a major city where cursing was a way of life. Everybody seemed to do it. It was part of the mystique, chic and fashionable. The same obtained in the rooms. Swearing in them was a form of art. Profanity, obscenity, four-letter words and expletives of all sorts punctuated every other sentence.

This neither surprised nor offended me. I didn’t have any moral or religious objections. I had come in as a libertine and an atheist. Moreover, I had had as filthy a mouth as they come. I had been a 60’s radical and f-bombs were among the most lethal weapons in my arsenal. A union organizer, my speeches at meetings and rallies were laced with every form of profanity. Cursing stirred people up. It mobilized them into action. They would demonstrate, march, go on strike.

But that was then, and this is now. So here I am at an AA meeting in the mid 80’s and it’s like a time warp. Everybody is still raising hell. The problem is that, with the alcohol out of my system, I now feel everything. Every raging f-word is like a blow to my nervous system. I feel riled up, agitated, ready to fight. But I don’t want to fight. I already did that. And I lost. That’s why I’m here. I found cursing was having the same effect on me as caffeine and sugar did, both of which I had consumed in abundance during the day, the wine then bringing me down at night. I had consciously given up the sugar-laden expressos when I stopped drinking. My body was telling me that cursing was just as bad for me, even if it was second-hand cursing.

After a few weeks, I gravitated toward meetings in a less contentious, more straight (more “bourgeois,” I would have said before) neighborhood. Unconsciously, I had started to change. I couldn’t go on doing sober what I had always done drunk.

When I did my first Step 4 inventory, cursing didn’t come up at all. What came up was a lot of anger. It took me many years to begin to see the connection between the two. I was a very angry man, and angry men curse. The review of secular opinion I did for this piece confirms what self-examination taught me. Cursing is a way of expressing emotion, and the main emotion it expresses is anger. The level of cursing varies with the level of anger. This can run the gamut from murderous rage to just plain frustration, like when we accidentally drop something and an obscenity automatically spills out of our mouth.

The general consensus is also that anger is the most power-driven emotion. Energy surges through the body as the emotion is aroused and we are primed to attack. And so because it is the verbal expression of anger, cursing has a lot to do with power. As a raging rabble-rouser, cursing and stirring up the crowds made me feel powerful. It made them feel powerful. Anger and cursing also made me feel powerful in another way: it enabled me to intimidate and thus to control my opponents.

It took me many inventories to connect my cursing with my anger, and both with my drive for power—and my drive for power with my main defect of character, which was pride. Apparently, everybody had seen this all along. I had always come across as angry and arrogant. I wanted to play God, as the Big Book says, and when people didn’t play along I would explode in a barrage of power-driven arguments and expletives.

Secular psychologists give all kinds of reasons why people curse. Almost never do they attribute the problem to pride. If pride comes into the picture at all, it is as a virtue rather than a vice. In their view, cursing is actually something to be proud of. They cite research showing that people who curse are more intelligent and have a larger vocabulary than those who don’t. They also argue that cursing is “cathartic” and therefore healthy. Wouldn’t you rather be cursed at than punched, they rhetorically ask. Such is the power of self-deception, the 12&12 says in Step 10, “the perverse wish to hide a bad motive underneath a good one, which permeates human affairs from top to bottom” (p. 94).

For “people who are driven by pride of self unconsciously blind themselves to their liabilities,” says the same book in Step 4, and thus “pride, leading to self-justification . . . is the basic breeder of most human difficulties, the chief block to true progress” (pp. 48-49). It is what stands in the way of exercising “restraint of tongue and pen” (Step 10, p. 91) and curbing the habitual cursing that mars some people's sharing.

Looking through an AA lens, it’s not hard to see pride lurking behind the reasons most often given for cursing. Some men curse because, in their view, that’s what men do. It makes them feel virile. It’s a macho-sort of pride. Closely related to this is the desire to belong. They want to be one of the boys, part of the “in” crowd. Some people curse because they take pride in being irreverent and defying convention and breaking taboos. They want to shock. They also think it makes them look hip, or smart, or funny. They want to stand out. They want to be noticed. Yes, people routinely curse as a way of signaling how strongly they feel about something, but what that often signals is how right they think they are and how wrong everybody else is. Sometimes curse words function as fillers, as a substitute for substance. We’re too proud to admit that we really have nothing to say. Finally, we curse because we curse. It’s become a habit, like saying “you know” every other sentence. We don’t even realize we’re doing it.

Our words reveal our character. Vulgarity, obscenity, and profanity betray the vulgar, the obscene, and the profane in us. The crass, the crude, and the coarse reflect who we are. A rude and disrespectful tongue shows us to be rude and disrespectful people. Other defects may be at work: cynicism and sarcasm, for instance, both rooted in resentment and pride.

The way we talk is one of those “affairs” or areas of our lives in which we want to practice the principles of recovery. Cleaning house is also cleaning up our language and getting rid of the filth in our mouths. If as the Big Book says resentment is the number one offender and we must be rid of habitual anger, then it would follow that we would want to be rid of cursing, inasmuch as anger and cursing are so often two sides of the same coin. Cursing both reflects and indulges anger, and, in indulging it, fosters it. And to the extent that pride is at the root of most of our problems and cursing is a manifestation of pride, to that extent also we want get rid of cursing, for the act reinforces and ingrains the defect. 

If we curse at meetings, we probably curse outside. A sponsee recounts how the AAs he hangs out with are constantly cursing. Not just newcomers, mind you. Oldtimers with double-digit sobriety. Should he say something, he asks? But what could he possibly say that would change what years of going to meetings hasn’t changed? If the way they talk is out of control, that’s their business. It's a matter between them and their sponsor. If they don’t have a sponsor, well, that’s their business too.

What if we attend a meeting where cursing is so prevalent that it creates a problem for us? Well, there are a number of things we can do. The first is not to contribute to the problem by cursing ourselves. For some of us that might not be as easy as it sounds. The reason is that cursing is infectious. That is easily observable at meetings. One f-word often starts a chain reaction. People who don’t ordinarily curse but who are not yet free of the habit automatically follow suit. This encourages others to do the same.

Another way not to contribute to the problem is not to laugh when people curse as a way to be funny and ingratiate themselves with the audience. Laughing rewards the behavior; it confirms that cursing works and encourages the person to keep doing it. This is particularly important in the rooms, where laughter is part of our healing and recovery. We want to laugh and be lighthearted, and so we tend to play along.

By not cursing and not laughing, we are changing the things we can change, which is our own actions and reactions. Another thing we can change is what meetings we go to. If a meeting we attend is not helping our recovery, wisdom says we need to stop attending that meeting. That’s of course what I had to do, and it served me well.

However, that may not be our first option. If the meeting is very important to us (it is our home group, or we have many friends in it, or there are a couple of people in it whose sharing we find particularly helpful), we may try to change the situation. If there’s general agreement that the problem is sufficiently serious for the group to try to alleviate it, we could call for a business meeting.

That’s presumably what the group in our introductory story did. The sign on the table was an expression of the group conscience. Not everyone may agree with such a decision, but according to our traditions we all are called to respect it. Out of respect for the group conscience and in the interest of group unity, those who are given to curse in the meeting have a responsibility to make a serious effort to exercise self-restraint and moderate their language.

In the same spirit, if the group conscience is to take no action, then those who disagree with that decision are called to respect it, accept it, and turn the matter over. Evidently, we could not change the situation. At that point we may want to exercise the option to leave. We may need to conscientiously examine our motives, though. It would be wrong for us to leave because we didn’t get our way and have a resentment. It would be right to do so because we have honestly determined that the atmosphere created by the constant swearing is not conducive to our growth and recovery.

Whatever we do, we need to do in a spirit of love and tolerance. A review of Grapevine articles and letters on the subject of cursing at meetings dating back to the 1950’s shows that the problem has been around for a long time. It also shows that AAs can get pretty defensive about the issue. Hence the need to deal with it in the proper spirit. 

That spirit is shown by the writer of AA’s Daily Reflections entry for January 21: "I frequently ask God to help me watch over my thoughts and my words, that they may be the true and proper reflections of our program . . . Today I may very well have to deal with disagreeable attitudes or utterances—the typical stock-in-trade attitude of the still–suffering alcoholic. If this should happen, I will take a moment to center myself in God, so that I will be able to respond from a perspective of composure, strength and sensibility."

The cursing alcoholic is a sick and suffering alcoholic—like us. Our job is to focus on ourselves and clean up our own language. By doing that we become part of the solution. In the long run—and it’s always a long run— that’s the best way we can help.

[Posted: 02/01/17. Image: Ruth Hock, AA's first secretary. She typed the Big Book’s manuscript and found the Serenity Prayer in a newspaper clipping. For a letter she wrote Bill W. of her recollections regarding the early days of AA, please click on link.]

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