Examining factors behind offensive speech, with Dr. Timothy Jay

This People Who Read People podcast interview is of Dr. Timothy Jay, a psychologist and expert on the phenomenon of cursing. He has written several books, including Why We Curse, Cursing in America, and We Did What? (here is Dr. Jay’s Amazon author page).

On social media, we often see videos of someone saying or doing rude, antisocial things, which can include threatening, misogynistic, or racist speech. Some of these people are suffering from conditions that can affect their judgment or ability to control their behavior, whether that be mental illness, Tourette’s Syndrome, or substance abuse. In this talk, we discuss some of the factors that can help explain some people’s offensive, aggressive, and taboo language.

For more on this subject: Farther down in this post, I’ve included a transcription from the podcast that talks more about this issue.

Links to this episode:

Topics discussed include:

  • How cursing can be governed by a different part of the brain than “normal” language
  • The nature of Tourette’s Syndrome, and why some TS sufferers (a small percentage) exhibit offensive language or behavior and some (most) do not
  • Why people with mental illness and/or personality disorders may lash out in aggressive and offensive ways as a coping mechanism to deal with a world they perceive as threatening
  • How we as a society need more understanding and empathy for the factors that can sometimes help explain outrageous or offensive behavior
  • Social media, and its role in making conflict and taboo-transgression into entertainment
  • Why the creation of taboos can create desire for those same taboo things

Stuff mentioned in this interview, or related content:


Hello, and welcome to the People Who Read People podcast. I’m Zachary Elwood. In this episode, I’ll be talking to Dr. Timothy Jay, a psychologist who has studied the phenomenon of cursing and offensive language and has written several books on that subject. His books include Why We Curse, Cursing In America, and his most recent book published in 2016 is called We Did What?, which is a look at inappropriate behavior from throughout American history. I’ll be talking to Dr. Jay about cursing, but also about the use of offensive language by people with Tourette’s syndrome and other conditions, including various types of mental illness. First, I wanted to go into a little backstory about why I wanted to talk about this subject. On social media these days, it’s a pretty common thing to see videos of people engaging in offensive behavior; of someone saying, or doing rude, antisocial things, which can include misogynistic or racist speech.

Some of these examples of bad behavior are people suffering from mental issues. In some videos, the person’s behavior is not just bad, but also incoherent and disorganized. One recent example, the example that led to me wanting to talk about this, was a woman who had been captured in several videos saying racist and rude things to Asian people. There was a lot of outrage about this on social media, with people calling her racist and evil and similar harsh judgements. One popular Twitter account shared one of the videos of her and said, “This is an ugly American. There’s been a sharp increase in these ugly videos over the past three years. And it’s getting worse.” When I watched a video of her, it seemed quite obvious to me that she wasn’t psychologically well; the content of her speech didn’t make much sense. It was disorganized and nonsensical. I’m going to play the audio from that widely shared video.

The audio doesn’t convey the full strangeness of the encounter and of her behavior. She gets very close to the man and wears a carefree smile at times, almost as if she’s having fun or bantering. But she did say quite a few things that stand out as being pretty incoherent. I could spend quite a bit of time analyzing this speech, but here are a few things that stood out.

One thing she says is, “You play games. We don’t play games.” The person she was bothering, the person recording the encounter, then said, “Oh, what kind of game are you playing?” And it sounds like she says, “We play games where you get fucked to death,” which obviously is pretty strange, and doesn’t make much sense. Interestingly, in the other videos of her, she had this same theme of talking about games. This is a quote from another video that she was in.

“Listen to me. We don’t play games here anymore. Next time you talk to me like that, you’re going to get your ass kicked by my family. They’re going to fuck you up.” And then she follows that with these other illogical statements: “Do you know who your family is? Do you know who my family is? Go home to your family. This is from your government. Go home. This is from my government. Go home. You’re getting fucked. You are so fucked. You’re getting fucked. Your kids are going to get fucked.”

Just watching this video for a few seconds, this person seemed to me to be clearly suffering from some psychological disturbance. It’s so clear to me from just this video, let alone other videos where she’s doing similar things. Watching this and seeing the Twitter responses, it was disheartening to me how much outrage and moral judgment her behavior provoked, and how much people were trying to fit her behavior into various narratives, whether it was Trump’s presidency or racial injustice in general. It was disheartening, but probably shouldn’t have been surprising because we do as a society, probably across the world, have a lack of understanding and a lack of empathy about mental illness and the range of behaviors it can lead to.

After these videos came out, an apparent friend of the woman’s family, who was a doctor, posted on Twitter about her saying, “She’s massively mentally ill. Been devastating her family for years, and she’s off her meds and need severe help. No excuse. Just thought victims might want to know why.”

And now before I get to the interview with Dr. Timothy Jay, I wanted to preface it with a couple of points. First, obviously there are people who say and do bad and horrible things who know right from wrong and who have the amount of control that most people have over their own behavior. In other words, some of these viral videos of bad behavior do show people who are racists or who are just rude or antisocial, who are highly functioning. People who it would be difficult to categorize as suffering from a condition that would help explain their behavior.

This is a long winded way to state what I hope is obvious: I’m not saying that all bad behavior is due to brain conditions or psychological conditions and can be excused in those ways. The point I do want to make is that in many cases of these widely shared videos of bad behavior, we don’t have enough information to come to a good conclusion about what’s going on. If someone is behaving in bad ways, especially if they’re behaving incoherently, we should first consider the possibility that that person has some condition that might explain their behavior. Because unfortunately, some people who suffer from mental illness can behave in antisocial and aggressive ways, in ways that are out of their control, in ways that they wouldn’t behave if they were in a more calm, normal state. In other words, in ways that don’t reflect who they really are fundamentally. And so my goal with this episode is to raise awareness about that, because I think that this lack of understanding and empathy is an important topic.

It’s an especially important topic in a modern society where so much behavior is immediately uploaded for people to analyze and watch and share, and where misunderstandings and overreactions are pretty frequent. And this topic also relates to excessive police violence because a disproportionate number of people hurt or killed by police are people with mental issues. This is an important issue in many ways.

Another aspect I think is often overlooked: If someone is behaving in a horrible way, and that person is aware that they’re being recorded, that scenario greatly increases the odds that that person is suffering from something affecting their judgment. When I look at some of these videos, the first thing that strikes me is that no person who was doing well mentally or in full control of their behavior would behave like that, knowing what most of us know about how these things play out and how such behavior can negatively impact someone’s life.

Also something I think is not well understood: Sometimes there’s a lack of understanding of how someone can be fairly high functioning yet still have serious mental issues. In the example that I played the audio of, the woman in the video was driving a pretty nice car. And some people would use this to support the idea that she couldn’t be that mentally ill, because she wouldn’t be allowed to drive a car if she were. But of course there are plenty of people driving cars who suffer from mental issues. Some people can have sudden psychotic episodes that come out of the blue. Some people can be quite stable for awhile and then have an episode maybe due to going off their meds or due to stressors in their life, or for whatever reason.

Another widely shared video from a year ago or so showed a man being rude and abusive in a bagel shop, including him threatening people in the shop. He accused women and society of mistreating him because he was short. The man ended up getting punched and tackled by someone in the bagel shop during their encounter. This was another video where the man’s behavior immediately struck me as being due to psychological issues. It came out that the man had a YouTube channel where he could be seen behaving in similar ways and where he ranted about his mistreatment for being short. He even referred to himself as the Martin Luther King of short people. Some people expressed the point of view that because he had a YouTube channel that he couldn’t be that mentally ill, that the ability to create a YouTube channel showed that he was in some sense, mentally competent. And all of this, I think shows a misunderstanding of how a mental illness can present because you can of course, drive cars and upload videos to YouTube and do many complex things, including holding down pretty decent jobs, while having serious mental issues, or having the capacity to have a serious mental episode.

All of this is to say that I think we, as a society, as a planet, need more understanding of the struggles of people with mental illness, and that we need to take a step back when trying to interpret videos of bad behavior. Because so often we lack context about the situation and we lack knowledge about the conditions that people in such videos might have. One final note before I play the interview, Dr. Jay and I talk about some sensitive areas, and it can be difficult to talk about these areas off the cuff, without occasionally saying something inaccurate or a bit insensitive, at least when taken on its own. And this kind of misspeaking becomes more likely when you’re not an expert in the area you’re talking about. In my case, I have no degree in psychology. And if I accidentally say something that you think is inaccurate or insensitive, my apologies. Any questions or criticisms, please send via the contact form on my website, The following interview was recorded on July 30th, 2020.

For rest of episode, see links above.