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AcademicIamA Dr. Ben Bergen, Cognitive Science Professor who studies profanity! AMA about the worst words in the world!

Oct 6th 2016 by bergatron • 22 Questions • 62 Points

I've been a supervisor at Bestbuy for two years. Mobile phones is my main department. I don't know if anyone will ask me anything but I have some time to kill so I thought, why not?

Proof: http://i.imgur.com/BnPjFfO.jpg

Edit: Posting from my phone so please forgive any formating errors.

Edit: 10:30 PST here! Still answering any questions you guys have! Thanks for all of the questions so far!

Edit: Well it's almost midnight so I think I'm going to hit the hay, if anyone has any more questions I'll get to them in the morning! Goodnight Reddit!

Q:

How has studying this topic changed how you swear? I would assume it's hard to reflexively curse the way you might have before starting down this path.

A:

Is the BestBuy employee discount worth trying to get a part time job with BestBuy?


Q:

When you scrutinize words very, very closely, they start to lose their impact. I'm basically inured to pretty much all profanity at this point. That means two things. First, I don't really censor myself as much. (Except slurs!) And second, I don't get as much of a thrill out of it. Seeing comedians "working blue"--using lots of swearing--doesn't give me the same rush it once did. I can only imagine what 20 years of making South Park has done to those guys.

A:

Yes! The discount is 5% above cost. On major purchases it's not the biggest but on accessories it is insane! Plus the accommodations are amazing for the core product (like up to 70% off of TVs and such)


Q:

What's the most creative use of profanity you've ever heard?

A:

Cables for days with mine.


Q:

Profanity is one of the places in the language that you see the most innovation and imagery. There's an Australian term "cuntwaffle" that I'm particularly impressed by in that regard.

A:

For days.


Q:

What is the funniest sounding profanity you have come across? Also what is the worst you have come across?

A:

can you claim a significant other as a pet for the insurance? I mean, an x-ray is an x-ray, right?


Q:

I think "bollocks" sounds pretty funny. The "worst" word in English is pretty clear, and it's not close. If you look at surveys of North American English speakers, they judge "nigger" far more offensive than any other word. Interestingly, it's different around the globe. In surveys from Great Britain and New Zealand, the most offensive word is "cunt".

A:

Haha not quite. But you can get your spouse on your health insurance of course. ; )


Q:

Is there a language which doesn't have profanity?

How far does the first written profanity date back?

A:

I helped launch Best Buy Mobile in one of the flagship locations (#465) and I have to say, despite the shitty pay and stupid hours, I do miss working there, mostly because of the team atmosphere they have.

Couple questions;

Does BEAST function anywhere near as good as the individual apps do? Are they still using BEAST?

Do you work in a bigger store? If so, has the fragmentation of departments eroded morale? When people from other departments wear a different shirt and represent different companies and there is more competition for sales amongst employees, I'd think that would hurt camaraderie and morale.

Last one, did they try to fuck with the discount again? Last time they did, I thought half the employees would quit, since that is, by far, the best perk.


Q:

There are languages that don't have anything like profanity as we know it. Japanese is usually held up as the example. There are ways to insult people and to express strong emotions, but the specific words aren't thought to be "bad words" like in North American English. You might call someone the equivalent of "fool," or express frustration by saying "poop"!

A:

BEAST is actually amazing now.

Not a whole lot of branded shirts anymore except for 3rd party labor. Even the GM has to where the same uniform now.

I actually worked with the company when they fucked with the discount (making it max 50% off) and it was terrible. They haven't tried to mess with it since they brought it back to the original.


Q:

What's your stance on parents swearing infront of children, and do you swear? Also whats the worst swear word in context?

A:

Is cronyism still a thing? Primary reason I left, they hired a fucking barista who was best friends with one of the CE Managers girlfriends to be the Mobile lead, over promoting me, despite me being more than fit for the role. They then had the gall to ask me to take the lead on training her. I actually left when they refused me full-time after I was offered a fucking management spot with another Mobile company.

In hindsight, taking that job (over the other that I was offered) was a mistake, but it all worked out well as I got out of retail about 2 years later. Do you ever see yourself leaving retail?


Q:

So as a parent, I've thought a lot about swearing and kids. I've dug through the science on this and two things are clear. First, language can be harmful to kids; specifically, verbal abuse ("you're worthless") and slurs ("you faggot"). Second, there's no reliable evidence that run-of-the mill profanity--the casual f-bombs etc. that punctuate our daily lives--cause any harm. They don't stunt children's vocabularies (there's even evidence of the opposite!), and there's no evidence that that increase aggression. What's more, it's not like kids won't learn to swear just because their parents don't. Kids aren't going to avoid swearing at school just because their parents punish them for swearing at home. In fact, it's probably the reverse. So my approach with my kid is to be myself at home, and to explain the social rules to him that are hard to pick up. We potty trained him by pointing out the places where it's more and less appropriate to poop. We're doing the same thing with swearing.

A:

I would say that it would be on a store to store basis. While I haven't seen much of any favoritism around my District I wouldn't be surprised if I saw anything like that. The company has made a huge turn around with Hubert Jolie as the CEO and it is really something nice to see.

I have worked for many retail store mostly in Electronics and Fashion and I truly enjoy the work. The money can be hard sometimes and amazing others. I also own a recording studio (I have a degree in audio engineering). If I ever became successful enough in that endeavor I'm sure I would leave retail. Honestly I just don't know haha.


Q:

How do (did?) profane words begin, why do they have the contextual meaning they do? Why does a word become profane?

A:

Do you know if best buy is going to focus on online shopping or do you think they will open even more stores in the future?


Q:

They usually grow out of one of four sources--religion, sex, body functions, and social groups. Minor contributors are death, disease, and animals. Because those concepts carry with them cultural taboos, certain words relating to them also become tainted with the same taboos. So if your culture finds fornication taboo, then it's likely that some or all words describing fornication will also become taboo. Those are the broad strokes, anyway.

A:

I don't see them moving out of the big box locations in the near future. There just isn't anyone out there at this point that provides the same services that we do.


Q:

OK i have a two more questions

how big is the gender gap between todays teens and there parents

What words are appropriate in other countries but not here and vise versa

A:

Maybe not on a national level but on a regional level there absolutely is.


Q:

This might be the biggest generation gap we've seen. Think about how different the language is that that today's digital natives are exposed to, compared to the heavily censored and vetted language that their parents used. Twitter versus CBS. Not even the same universe. So it's the same thing that every generation experiences, just at the speed of the internet.

A:

Yes like Fry's electronics out here.


Q:

I haven't had the chance to read your book yet, but I'm curious: do non-swear-words used as expletives appear the same way as profanity does in the various brain scans that you do? What about substitutions ("frack", "shoot")?

A:

Ex employee here. I started working there in late 2012 and left at the beginning of 2015, so I went through the restructure. At the time of the restructure, we had already lost a bunch of great employees because of a terrible GM that had only been there a few months, then went through it again after the restructure because morale was so low.

I switched stores a couple months later, then switched back a couple months after that, but I got the same feeling from both stores. When I started the focus was on doing right by the customer no matter what, but by the time I left all that really mattered was the bottom line.

My question is how long have you been with the company and if you were there before the restructure, what do you think about the direction Best Buy has taken since then?


Q:

They work differently in the brain. Two things make profanity special in the brain. First, it's tightly associated with strong emotions, and those emotional associations start early for profanity. Not so much for so-called "minced oaths" like "frick" and "darn". Second, it's something that you're usually suppressing. So you need to have an inhibitory circuit making sure you don't accidentally slip up and say profanity. Not so much for minced oaths. So they're pretty different.

A:

I worked 2008-2012 then came back late 2014. When I came back my store was in shambles. It was terrible.

After restructuring the entire leadership team the store has a completely new feel to it. Even the veteran employees who were miserable under our old GM are having a blast. Management matters and unfortunately management isn't always the best.


Q:

How the fuck did you stumble into studying profanity?

Ok that question was mostly just so I could swear at you (still curious though), but I have another question.

While studying profanity academically, do certain topics feel more difficult to discuss? For example, I feel like talking about the work "fuck" isn't going to be as uncomfortable as talking about racist/misogynistic/ableist slurs. I steer clear of the latter but curse like a sailor with everything else.

A:

Very cool, thanks for doing this. Is there a way to get a better price than what's listed? Like a secret discount or anything like that? Also, I went in to buy a car stereo but installation was going to double the price. What's up with 125$ to install?


Q:

Ha! Profanity is the perfect marriage of my personal and professional interests.

To your other question, yes, of course. It's much hard to say slurs, even in the most surgical, academic ways. And that's for good reason. Slurs are built to harm. And like many people, I'm not used to using them.

A:

Open Box is the way to go for discounts. That and price matching!

The installation will generally be the most expensive part. Car installers are some of the highest paid individuals in our store due to the amount of certifications they have to go through. I will say, it is 100% worth it to have an MECP certified installer work on your car. One of the coolest things is that all installs are guaranteed and even if you get a new car, Bestbuy will remove the stereo from your old car, install it in your new car, and re-install your stock system in your old car for free!


Q:

Are some cultures more adept at swearing? What is the impact of swearing on personalities, and on societies? (i.e., is it best to repress them, or make them mainstream and somewhat acceptable, thereby disarming them)?

A:

Why can't I walk into a Best Buy, knowing what I want, walk to the aisle, pick the item up off the shelf, walk to the check out line, purchase the item and walk out the store without being accosted by every employee that happens to see me along the way?

Every single one I walk by stops me to ask if they can help me find anything, which is nice, if it happens once, but it happens up to 10 or so times in a single trip.

It's like as soon as I say "no thank you" another one pops up to ask the same question.

If I say "No thanks, I'm just walking over there to get a spare Xbox controller," they'll start following me, insist on picking it up off the shelf for me and then hand it to me.

It's even worse if I want to browse.

I get that it can be frustrating for a customer not to be able to find an employee to ask for help but I stopped going to Best Buy a couple years ago because the employees make the experience feel like this scene from Airplane.


Q:

Most definitely. There's nothing really equivalent to swearing in Japanese, and as a consequence if you want to swear in Japanese, you have to do it in another language. Baseball player Ichiro Suzuki famously said that he loves being able to speak Spanish and English with other players because he just can't express the same emotions with the same impact in Japanese. As for the impact of swearing, we don't really know much. It's clear that when marginalized groups re-appropriate slurs, that can take away some of the power of those words, but it doesn't always (it worked for "queer" but not "nigger").

A:

Unfortunately we don't know who other employees have contacted. In this situation I recommend trying to stick with an employee you like haha.

You will never stop being "customer serviced" at Bestbuy because one of the biggest complaints we get is "not enough employees to help me" or "I waited to long for an employee to help me."

This is our effort to counteract those complaints.


Q:

https://forums.battlefield.com/en-us/discussion/751/fridaynightbattlefield-16-sept/p10

they seem to think that the f-word isn't vulgar/obscene

What's your view on it? People seem to be very defensive when I point it out.

A:

How do you react when people steal things and do you think your reaction is different from other bestbuy employees?


Q:

The f-word is changing. People under the age of 35 on average rate it less offensive than "homo" but more offensive than "shithead". That wasn't always true, of course. If you project forward 50 years, I'd be surprised it it were more offensive than "damn" is now.

Importantly, it's also not a term of abuse, a slur.

A:

My store went from being am extremely high "shrink" store to being fairly low in the last year. We are all very passionate about people stealing. I don't think there's a person in the store who doesn't get angry when someone tries to pull one past us.


Q:

Have you studied French swearing? we have composite insults that can go on to infinite lenghts!

A:

How do you make an hr?


Q:

Yes! French has a long and ornate tradition of profanity, as it does with most language.

A:

Sorry could you elaborate?


Q:

My favorite Russian joke contains a sequence of 5 very bad swearwords that take on prefixes and suffixes to create very specific non-swear meaning. Is this a waste of expletives? (хули нахуячили дохуя? расхуячивай нахуй!) (5 words with the same root (dick), meaning: "why did you put so much on my cart? take it off quickly!" The meaning is quite unambiguous)

A:

how much money do you take home every two weeks, what is on your paycheck roughly...?, $$$$


Q:

Don't let Putin hear you say that.

A:

That I don't feel super comfortable answering. It depends on where you live definitely. Look at Glassdoor for some basic averages. I can't tell you how accurate they are, but it's a start.


Q:

Why are there "bad words" and why are some words worse than others?

A:

Is your store profitable? Do you think Best Buy will continue to survive as a company? It's seemed to be circling the drain for a few years


Q:

We have lots of "bad words" that revolve around taboo things like bathroom activities, sex, religion, and so on. These words become "bad" when the taboo transfers from the world to the word. That's a complicated cultural leap that we don't really understand. Importantly, it's not necessary. There are cultures (like in Japan) that don't treat words as bad, at least not to the degree we do in the west. As for why specific words are bad, it seems to be a consequence of a bunch of things... how the word sounds, where it is on the roller coaster from introduction to obsolescence, and whether it's used to cause harm (like slurs are).

A:

Just look at last quarters reports! The company is on fire! It's hard competing with online company's but we are the only nation wide big box electronics store. What happens when all purchases are done online? If you know what you need that's great! But the vast majority of people could use some help with figuring out what they actually need.


Q:

Do you think PC culture has made American society less racist or more "offended"?

A:

Do you care if people steal?


Q:

It seems to me that the impulse underlying what people call "PC culture" is fundamentally positive. You want to call people by the label they prefer, rather than something that could be offensive. That's just being considerate. But any time you take your personal beliefs about what's appropriate and mutate them into dictates about what other people can or can't do, you're going to raise the stakes, and make the very language you're trying to control that much more powerful. It's kind of a vicious circle.

A:

Very much so. I feel like they're trying to steal from me.


Q:

First, thanks so much for doing this! 2 quick questions;

1) What's it like working there? In terms of co workers, environment, and management. 2) Best thing that has happened while you have been working? Or worst, scariest, etc.

A:

I love working here! It's a lot of work in my role but my team and co-workers really make it worth while!

I'll go with scariest. A "customer" came in with a TV to return, I happened to be around customer service at the time and noticed that the TV the gentleman was attempting to return was last year's model (not the one the box was for). When I turned the return down he pulled a large knife on me. I was able to talk him down and got him to leave with his TV after letting him know that the cops were on their way. It's crazy what some people will do for something so stupid.


Q:

Is Bestbuy gonna be opening its doors for Black Friday on thanksgiving day again this year?

A:

Yes...


Q:

I love how people are down voting you like you made that decision for the company...

Give the man a fucking break, guys.

A:

I appreciate you.


Q:

Any way to get free or discounted items?

I once had a relative who claimed to have gotten a brand new laptop at a discount price because the box was busted, I always wanted to ask in person but I don't have the guts. Thanks.

A:

That wouldn't really happen often but Open Box items are all I purchase for TVs and computers. I've gotten some amazing deals on open boxes for both me and my family and friends!


Q:

Not true. Leadership can modify the price of literally anything. Mostly this is price matches, but damaged box items could still be discounted. Also, items that are discontinued can be discounted heavily as they deduct from the store's p&l the longer they are in stock. It's totally up to the manager. Obviously, the best deals would be made on open box items. Open box prices are pretty negotiable.

A:

Always working those end of life deals. Find a an EOL open box and you're really talking!


Q:

Why is the geek squad made up of mainly sales people instead of competent repair technicians?

Do they all have to follow a step by step troubleshooter?

Maybe not in your store, but the ones in Pittsburgh it seems like their #1 priority is up selling a new PC rather than fixing one that is more than 1 year old.

They also quoted a price then did a bait and switch on a memory upgrade to my aunt.

Oh your laptop only has 2GB RAM (1GB x2) we can upgrade you to 4 GB (2GB x2) for $50.

When she comes back to pick it up she only has 3 GB (2GB x1 and 1GBx1) of Ram and it cost her $75.

she asked me to go in and see why, their excuse was that the ram they priced for her was on sale but ended up not fitting her laptop, so they had to put in different ram that would fit but wasn't on sale.

They did this without calling her and explaining this to her before doing it, and when she tried to refuse it they said they'd have to keep her laptop even longer (they already had it for 4 days for a memory upgrade)

I can do a memory upgrade blindfolded in less than 10 min.

A:

There are multiple types of agents. The client doesn't actually interact with the repair tech most of the time. We have counter agents that you meet up front.

Again the quality of something like this can Cary store to store. I would recommend reading reviews on the different qeek squads at your different stores.

There will always be bad reviews because that's life, but in general you won't find a better service than geek squad out there. Other than doing it yourself if you can, but if you can then it's a moot point because you don't need a geek. ; )


Q:

Has BB management started some sort of Reddit initiative? I swear these have been cropping up a lot lately. Is best buy finally catching up to Circuit City?

A:

I was just bored last night. I'm mainly a lurker on Reddit with a few posts here and there. I thought it would be something interesting that I could do.