Your first kiss for example, and the nervous exhilaration that accompanies the moment. Or in the same vein, the soul-sucking despair of your first real heartbreak. Hell, I can even remember my virgin sip of alcohol.
But there’s another first that’s often overlooked due to its perceived insignificance.
For me, it took place ten years ago, when I was a fresh-faced seventeen-year-old who had just graduated from Maris Stella High, an all-boys secondary school, sharing the classroom with members of the opposite sex for the first time.
As my math teacher explained the concept of mathematical functions to a bunch of teenagers who couldn’t differentiate a single thing if our lives depended on it, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see a female classmate leaning in to whisper the seven words that I’ll never forget.
“What the fuck is she talking about?”
I’m sorry Mrs Ang, but that day, the rest of your lecture was lost on me. My naïve, inexperienced brain was far too busy trying to comprehend what had just happened.
Yes, being in a boys’ school meant that I had limited contact with girls my age but up until then, it never occurred to me that women swore.
Fast-forward to the present and I’m no longer shocked by the notion of women cursing. That said, hearing a woman drop the F-bomb never fails to put a smile on my face.
Make no mistake, it’s not the vileness of the word itself that puts a twinkle in my eye. It’s much more than that.
If you take a look at the iconic Singapore Girl for instance, you’ll find that she embodies how we seem to think the Singaporean female should be portrayed on the global stage—a dainty, demure maiden with long flowing hair. You might argue that it was just an advertising strategy used by Singapore Airlines, and that times have changed, but they’re undoubtedly a manifestation of our society’s expectations of (docile) women.
Because of the beliefs we inherited, many of us boys grew up with a slightly skewed view on how we thought women should conduct themselves. My editor is one of them. Like me, he agrees that growing up, he too saw girls as symbols of purity and innocence.
“Going to a boys’ school like SJI meant that my interactions with the fairer sex were few and far between. The girls I did converse with were also very ‘proper’ and majority hailed from single-sex schools as well. ”
He then goes on to tell me that the first time he heard a girl swear was, to my shock and awe, in church.
“It was during Sunday school and for some reason, I liked it. I think it was a mix of enjoying that rebellion and finding the experience extremely novel and hence attractive.”
As I continue picking his brain, I discover that he’s a man after my own heart and before long, he ends our exchange with another reflection.
“On hindsight, it’s the defiance of gender norms which is something I find incredibly sexy rather than someone who willingly goes with the flow.”
Preach, brother. Preach.
Chatting with a few other guys as well confirms that we all enjoy hearing women swear simply because it’s so unexpected. For us, all we saw from our one-dimensional perspective was that cussing was a trait solely associated with the male species.
Twenty-eight-year-old Alyssa kindly fills in the gaps for me.
After exchanging pleasantries, I begin our conversation by asking her if swearing was commonplace in her convent alma mater to which she replies with a resounding and enthusiastic, “FUCK YEAH!” before breaking into rambunctious laughter.
Immediately, I find myself admiring her disregard of social convention. I mean, we’ve known each other for all of five minutes.
Seeing me smile, she continues.
“I mean it’s hard enough being a girl. From an early age we’re told how to dress and how to act lest we seem unladylike. Even in school we were often chastised if our pinafores were too short or if our belts were too low.”
She goes on to add that looking back, swearing was their own small way of rebelling.
“They could tell us how to sit but they didn’t have much control over what we said especially since we swore out of earshot of any teachers or anyone we didn’t feel comfortable around. We didn’t need another lecture on femininity.”
Alyssa’s experience is one largely shared by Amelia, 25, although she points out that cursing in her girls’ school might not have happened as frequently.
“We were pretty ‘guai’ on the whole and we didn’t want to get into much trouble.”
Amelia also clues me in something that I had never thought about.
“When I went to junior college, I noticed that a lot of my old schoolmates started acting more demure around guys and those who didn’t ended up being labelled unsophisticated.”
The man swears like a sailor, but in all my years of knowing him, I never thought to ask if he behaved the same way during his formative years in a co-ed school.
“Well, I can’t speak for the majority but I was a lot more self-conscious in lower secondary,” he tells me.
“Profanities were seen as disgusting by the girls in my class and they never used them. Needless to say, we boys all wanted to look good to the opposite sex and stopped using them as well.”
After a hearty swig of Denmark’s finest, I ask him how it had all gone so wrong.
Expectedly, he responds to my joke with a string of vulgarities condemning not only me, but entire generations of my family to the 7th circle of hell.
After our laughing ceases, he adds, “I think at a certain point, you stop giving a fuck what people think. By fifteen I stopped trying to please the world and in poly I found both male and female friends who didn’t judge me for my swearing. The girls would swear freely and even ask me to teach them how to curse properly!”
It seems then that with age comes either the wisdom of discretion or the embracing of who we really are.
Today, swearing in the workplace is often seen as inappropriate or unprofessional. Yet if you think about it, it’s really part of the social glue that makes the office a bearable place to spend so much of your time in.
Faz, an account executive, loves when his female colleagues spew the occasional expletive at work because he sees it as a sort of informal common language that helps him bond with them.
He explains. “Unlike the experience of National Service that all guys share, besides work, sometimes it’s difficult to find a common topic of interest and expletives help to break the ice a little bit.”
To him, a vulgarity is the non-alcoholic equivalent of wine in social gatherings. I then ask him if he swears in the office, to which he shakes his head.
“I try my best not to,” he tells me, abashed, before sharing another hidden upside to women who swear.
“Taking into account the sexual misconduct cases that are happening in Singapore and around the world today, men are a lot more wary of what we say now. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good thing but it’s also quite tiring analysing our every word. In my experience, a woman’s usage of vulgarities is a pretty good indicator of how easily-offended she is and it helps ensure I don’t cross the line,” he says.
Finally, Wei Ting, who’s in her early thirties and works in PR, shares that along with swearing in the office, she’s also been known to inadvertently drop the occasional F-bomb in front of clients. But they’ve never once batted an eyelid at it.
“It probably helps that I’m a woman in an industry where we don’t have to adhere to a strict code of conduct and thus, expectations of us are slightly different from those of the corporate world.”
I then decide to ask her if her usage of profanities has ever been beneficial to her in any way and her reply is interesting.
“If anything, I think clients see me as a real person with feelings and not just an emotionless robot helping them with their business. We have a more personal relationship.”
And for me, it’ll always be one of life’s guilty pleasures.