During the Christmas craze, I binged the first season of Westworld in about four days. I thought even the subtle details were very well done. Taken objectively, the concept of a massive park populated by synthetic flesh androids requires significant suspension of disbelief, but I found it easy to become immersed in that world. Until one thing jarred me.
The employees in management and supervisor positions swore like sailors, often directing curt profanities at each other. More than once, I found myself thinking, "If you talked to your boss like that, you'd get fired."
That got me thinking (always a dangerous thing). When you're building a world that requires people to imagine circumstances far outside their own, what often determines whether the reader can suspend disbelief is not the fantastic element so much as the mundane details surrounding it. The weirder the fantastic realm, the more important it is that the people act in ways that make sense; that clothing rips; that cobwebs gather in disused corners.
I considered another show I watch, this one grounded (mostly) in our reality: Suits. Suits arguably has a similar corporate environment with an almost equivalent amount of cursing. (I will credit the disparity to the difference in network: you can get away with a lot more on HBO than you can on USA.)
So why haven't I ever questioned the cursing in Suits? The answer might be that since the world of Suits is otherwise much like our own, my suspension of disbelief doesn't get as much of a workout. In this mode, the cursing is essentially a fantastical element. In the end, Suits is an imaginary version of our world - it's just that the differences are less drastic and obvious.
Just in case I had drawn any firm conclusions, I commented about the cursing disconnect in Westworld on Facebook, and someone jumped in to comment that in their corporate environment, such cursing was common. This surprised me ... and got me thinking.
How much is suspension of disbelief based on truth, and how much is based on what we *think* is true? This comes up a lot in historical / alternate history, I imagine, where many popular misconceptions influence what we'll believe in a historical novel.
Every time we're making a claim against popular knowledge, we're spending a kind of "belief capital," and the amount a viewer/reader has varies from person to person. Another way to phrase this is "imagination overhead." As a society, our imagination overhead has grown a lot over the past few decades; it's what makes fantasy-based shows possible and even viable on regular network television. The ones that succeed make sure to do everything else right: to show that people are people, no matter how exotic.