Swearing is everywhere and we’re all to blame. One survey found that almost 90% of Britons swear (an average of 14 times a day) and barely any of them think it’s offensive.
So if everyone’s doing it and nobody cares, should we just stop clutching our pearls and accept salty language at work? In truth, many of us do it anyway. And while the professional world disapproves (or at least acts like it does), some researchers think swearing has certain advantages.
The right image
Does swearing make you look stupid and unprofessional?
Many people think employees should take the high road. A CareerBuilder survey found that 81% of employers think profanity is unprofessional. And most think it shows immaturity, a lack of control and even makes the employee appear less intelligent.
“You might ask what harm does it do, but what good does it do? It can make you feel better, but it doesn’t earn you respect, reflect strong character, solve disagreements, exhibit intelligence, or get you promoted,” says James O’Connor, the author of Cuss Control, a book on how to curb cursing.
Then again, there are plenty of people at the top of the pecking order who swear. It’s not just celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay or fictitious characters like the industrial-strength foul mouth Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It.
Executives like Yahoo’s former CEO Carol Bartz and T-Mobile’s current CEO John Legere have both happily and publicly dropped the f-bomb. Even US President Barack Obama famously said he was trying to figure out “whose ass to kick” after the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Clearly, swearing hasn’t stopped every potty-mouth’s career progress. One study even shows that “judicious” use of swearing can make you more persuasive. Maybe, out of the right mouth, it’s a leadership tool.
A career booster?
Nobody’s suggesting that swearing is a substitute for being good at your job. But can it help? Some research suggests it might, in a roundabout sort of way.
In a 2007 study, a researcher went on an undercover mission, as a worker at a British mail-order warehouse. He was initially excluded from the social group in the office, but things changed after he swore at another employee. It was a sort of initiation rite that cemented a bond with the rest of the group.
The co-author of the study, Yehuda Baruch, who’s now a professor at the University of Southampton Business School, says that swearing like a sailor isn’t just a blue-collar hobby.
“We are all human beings, and even if you’re a distinguished lawyer, you might swear,” according to Baruch.
But how does that help? Well, carpet bombing your workplace with profanity won’t get you a promotion, but fitting in at the workplace helps.
“I’m not saying this a major criteria for promotion, but one criteria for promotion is the ability to connect with people. In certain contexts, swearing is a way to connect,” he says.
Two sides of the coin
But this might also suggest a broader problem with swearing. If it serves to consolidate the bonds in one group, is it to the exclusion of others? And if so, could it play a part in making the workplace more hostile?
“Swearing usually expresses anger or a negative attitude that can be contagious, creating a less pleasant working environment,” James O’Connor says.
And really, its effect on the working environment is where it becomes a genuine issue.
“Context is everything,” according to Roland Hassall, who’s a Sydney-based workplace lawyer at Sparke Helmore. His firm deals with a case a week where swearing is a factor. But it’s almost never the only factor, or even the main one.
Most workplaces today aren’t concerned about offending tender ears. They’re interested in creating a harmonious and productive working environment. Employment cases that involve swearing are more often about something more serious, like bullying or harassment.
“Society is a lot more permissive now than say in the 1960s in terms of what you can say,” Hassall says.
But there is a clear exception to this rule. There’s far less tolerance for sexist and racist language, which can quickly cross the legal line into sexual harassment or discrimination.
“Most of the tribunals or commissions would have no hesitation upholding disciplinary action in cases like that,” he says.
Properly targeting your f-bombs
But if sexist and racist language is rightfully a no-go zone, there are other well-worn rules for avoiding trouble. If in doubt, don’t swear in front of children, microphones, customers, patients or interview panels. And swearing at an actual human is riskier than swearing at the paper jam in the printer.
When, where and how you swear matters just as much as which linguistic grenade you toss. But figuring out what’s acceptable and what’s off-limits is subjective and blurry, and at times pretty weird.
At the extreme end of the spectrum, swearing is flat out illegal in some countries. Recently, rapper 50 Cent was arrested and fined for using profanity during one of his shows in St Kitts. In the United Arab Emirates, there are more serious penalties, even for swearing over a messaging app.
Figuring out what’s acceptable in other cultures can be very tricky. While religion-based swearing has lost its impact in many western countries, blasphemy laws are still enforced in the Middle East. In some Asian cultures, a poorly-placed swear word might result in a loss of face, which could sour the relationship. Even within the US, there are some pretty dramatic differences in what people find offensive. In short, it’s probably best to err on the side of caution if you don’t know the rules.
One Sydney-based journalist, who asked to remain anonymous, broke most of the rules and came out better off. She says firing off nuclear-grade expletives at her boss actually earned his respect.
She was covering a story on a hot summer day, and asked the chief of staff to send a bottle of water and a sandwich when he changed over the camera crew. Neither the water nor the sandwich materialised and she fainted in a press conference.
Later, she called him and gave him both barrels, loudly calling him a name most wouldn’t use on their worst enemies.
“I’m really glad I did it, and I think the swear words expressed exactly how angry and upset I was. It may not have been ‘professional’ but I think it got me a lot more professional respect,” she says.
“He later told me he had a lot more respect for me after this incident, and since then has genuinely checked with me to make sure I’m OK (not in a patronising way either – I think it just made him remember I wasn’t a robot).”
But again, context is everything. She had the moral high ground in the dispute. She works in an office where swearing is common. Perhaps in another workplace, it would have ended very differently.
By Tim McDonald