What the $#%& are you talking about?
The amount of profanity that someone hears daily has increased over the past decade. This was nowhere more apparent than sitting at home hosting a Super Bowl party and while watching a commercial hearing a guest exclaim: “can they really cuss in a commercial?”
Cursing and cussing have always been a part of human vernacular. We even have aphorisms describing the use of “salty” language. Saying someone curses “like a sailor” is stating that their spoken choice of verbiage contains terminology that would make people in polite company blush.
You peasant swain! you whoreson malthorse drudge!
Shakespeare — The Taming of the Shrew, 4.1.62
There are even famous modern pop culture references to specific words that, at one point, were simply not allowed on television. A famous monologue by George Carlin from 1972, titled “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television“, calls out specific words considered taboo on American airwaves for both radio and television. This became popular enough that a broadcast containing these seven words eventually led to a Supreme Court case that helped to define the limits that the federal government could regulate speech on television and radio in the United States (Wikipedia: FCC vs Pacifica Foundation).
Social inhibitions regarding language have eased over time. This is also true at work, where “social swearing” has become more common in the modern company.
So what broad categories of workplace cursing exist?
“That movie was f&%$ing amazing!” or “That was a s&%$ty game last night.”
Social swearing includes conversational use of swear words in general, verbal communications not directed at specific people or targets and not intended to be hurtful.
This is commonly observed when swear words are descriptive modifiers for stories during general conversation. This can also be expressed as friendly teasing or ribbing when directed at another person in a non-malicious manner.
“Son of a b&%$# that hurt!” or “D&*@ it! What does PC load letter mean on this f&$%ing printer?!?”
Annoyance swearing is typically not part of a conversation but is instead intended to express frustration, anger, or outrage at a specific event or circumstance.
This is often used as a way to vent and blow off a little steam. Regularly this is muttered quietly to oneself, but occasionally it is stated in a much louder and more explosive manner. For example: stubbing your toe.
“You are a f*@$ing dumba$$!” or “That is some s#&$ty work right there!”
This category includes the use of cursing directed at someone with the intent to hurt or wound. This is where friendly and jocular ribbing turns into aggressive, insulting, or abusive messaging. This is an unhealthy form of cursing in the workplace and can break down team culture and morale and have lasting repercussions on relationships between teammates.
This type of swearing can easily cross the line into harassment, which could lead to possible legal ramifications.
You starveling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stock-fish! O for breath to utter what is like thee! you tailor’s-yard, you sheath, you bowcase; you vile standing-tuck!
Shakespeare — Henry IV Part I, 2.4.103
In many circumstances in the workplace, any cursing would be frowned upon. However, there are some scenarios where this behavior could provide a positive impact.
When Workplace Cursing Can Be Beneficial
Social attitudes are changing regarding the use of profane language in the workplace. Numerous studies have shown potential benefits depending on the personnel involved and the specific context that surrounds the usage. Some potentially beneficial uses are called out below with a note of caution — not all workplaces are the same and viewing this type of language is not a potential benefit in all circumstances.
Here are some examples of potentially positive uses of swearing at work.
To Gain Social Acceptance
While not limited to using swear words, conversational cursing with peers has been shown to increase bonding and camaraderie among teammates. By using similar forms of language in the group, individuals secure their place in that hierarchy and know that their feelings and intent are appropriately communicated.
This level of use and acceptance can vary wildly among different groups of employees. One study completed by Yehuda Baruch and Stuart Jenkins looked into the distinctive environments for workers. This study looked at warehouse and office workers and found discrepancies among these environments. This paralleled the interactivity of employees and customers.
Employees who interacted with customers had lower rates of cursing overall and one can infer that the lower and more isolated employees are, such as in warehousing or manufacturing environments, the more usage of swear words would be accepted. (from: When a Foul Mouth Might Get You Fired — And When It Might Not)
To Establish Personal Control
The feeling of being overwhelmed in any situation is not a happy or pleasant feeling. Swearing provides a sense of fighting back against a feeling of being overpowered by current circumstances. This fight response allows for a sense of empowerment over the current situation which can lead to action and positive movement.
However, this effect treads a fine line. Often swearing accompanies anger and excessive anger can overwhelm any set of circumstances if not managed. The goal here would be to use curse words as an outlet to rein in the anger and establish positive control. To quote Mark Twain:
When angry, count to four; when very angry, swear.
As a Relief Valve
Swearing can have valuable benefits both physically and psychologically. The act can reduce stress and according to one study, can even boost adrenaline and physiological responses to external pain and stimuli: ” Richard Stephens of Keele University found that people who swear are able to hold their hands in ice-water for twice as long” (from: Hell Yes: The 7 Best Reasons for Swearing).
Where Workplace Cursing Is Not Appropriate
Just because there are positives to using this form of communication in the workplace does not mean that everyone has a free license to spout off as a “potty mouth” all day. There are many situations and scenarios where cursing is inappropriate and potentially legally damaging.
You Cannot Control How Others Perceive Intent
There is a very fine line between humorous, friendly insults and hurtful statements or harassment. The fact is, the distinction between the messaging does not rely upon the intent of the speaker, but instead upon the perception of the listener to discern.
This perception can lead to some very serious consequences depending on the language being used. In the worst cases, it can lead to HR involvement, termination, and harassment lawsuits. The major problem is that no static list of words exists that covers all scenarios. George Carlin said it succinctly:
There are some 2-way words, like it’s okay for Curt Gowdy to say “Roberto Clemente has 2 balls on him,” but he can’t say, “I think he hurt his balls on that play, Tony. Don’t you? He’s holding them. He must’ve hurt them, by God.”
Besides the blurry line around what constitutes harassment, the perception for the speaker’s professionalism may be called into question. According to a survey from 2012 by CareerBuilder.com, 81% of employers question the professionalism of an employee who curses, and 57% report that they would be less likely to promote someone who uses this type of language (from: Swearing at Work Can Harm Your Career Prospects).
Cursing Has a Dark Side
To quote Master Yoda: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” While there may be positives to using this type of emotive language, these words are often used during escalated situations. These kinds of situations can be further exacerbated by the use of swear words, adding more fuel to a dangerous fire.
Cursing has been shown to elicit the “fight” side of a fight-or-flight response for the person saying the words, but that can also be true for the person hearing those words. This is where control of both parties is needed to not let things escalate to the point where other physical measures seem to be a good outlet for the buildup of stress from the encounter.
Unfortunately, Like Many Things At Work, Swearing Follows a Double Standard
Every time society takes two steps forward it seems that the requisite one step back follows shortly thereafter. In the aforementioned Baruch and Jenkins study, the researchers wrote:
However, there is somewhat of a double standard when it comes to women. “Women swearers are often seen to be of low moral standing,” …the study also shows that men can gain points by using profanity on the job, but they tend to tone it down around women as a display of workplace etiquette.
In the Careerbuilder.com study, women also self-reported lower instances of cursing at 47% versus 54% percent for men.
Not all women are holding back, however, as former Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz showed in 2011 when describing her separation from the company. Her direct quote to Fortune’s Patricia Sellers on September 8, 2011, stated that: “These people f%#$ed me over.“
While these were not the first public vulgarities uttered by the former CEO, they garnered hundreds of thousands of views on Youtube with copious amounts of commentary by users. Yet not all of it was negative against her statement.
Perceptions are changing, albeit slowly.
In conclusion, there is no logical answer whether cursing at work is acceptable to everyone. Each workplace is different, and each person has their level of comfort for what they hear from others and what they use themselves.
At the end of the day, you are responsible for what comes out of your mouth.
This includes ensuring that you understand the culture and social norms present in your workplace. If there is any doubt, then the safest avenue would be to remove that language from your vocabulary.
However, there are some instances where letting a little sailor out can have positive impacts to your standing in the workplace. Each scenario should be weighed and respected, and all feedback regarding the appropriateness of each statement should be considered.
Don’t give in to the peer pressure to curse if you don’t want to. Shakespeare never used actual profanities to curse in his writings. If you feel the need to express yourself in this manner, then it isn’t hard to follow in his footsteps and expand your vocabulary to replicate the crudeness of vulgarity through the use of creative euphemism. Remember, we all use the same sets of words to communicate.
Maybe the Bard said it best :
You taught me language, and my profit on ’t
Is I know how to curse.
The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!
Shakespeare — The Tempest, 1.2.368
Thanks for reading!
Originally published at kevinwanke.com on February 16, 2020. Kevin’s blog focuses on advice for new Engineers and for Engineering Managers.