Ah, Those Juicy Swear Words

Recently my work took me to several organizations in different industries that had one notable thing in common: the accepted use of swear words at work. Here are some of the reasons people used to explain this habit:

  1. Our work is stressful—it’s a natural outlet.
  2. We act professionally with our clients, but can let loose with one another.
  3. We need to vent.
  4. It’s an expression of my authentic self. Those who don’t like it should get thicker skins.
  5. It’s just how we do things around here—it’s embedded in our workplace culture.
  6. I do it only with people whom I know are okay with it.
  7. After a frustrating interaction with a customer where I was patient and kind, I have to release steam.
  8. I know which lines not to cross. For example, I would never swear at someone.
  9. It’s always been like this in our industry.
  10. Management does it too.

True, organizations vary, customers can be utterly frustrating, and some jobs are especially stressful. And yes, in some industries swearing is practically a rite of passage.

Using swear words can feel really good. They’re juicy, colourful, and provide a satisfying outlet. In fact, research even shows that they help alleviate physical pain—people who used an expletive were able to immerse their hands in ice water twice as long as folks who hadn’t used a profanity. (But wait! Later findings indicate that those who swear on a daily basis show no such improvement in pain tolerance.)

Even the best of us will occasionally blurt out the wrong word at the wrong time. I have fond childhood memories of my father using every morsel of self-control at his disposal to avoid using foul language, and then on occasion despite himself blurting out a colourful curse in his Dutch mother tongue, much to our delight.

But what about the use of ongoing, habitual bad language at work?

Well, at the risk of alienating those of you who work in (and are comfortable with) workplace cultures like those I described above and who might think that my Pollyannaish views will destroy all the fun and authenticity, and at the risk of  boring those of you who work in non-swear environments, I decided to share my view on this matter.

So let’s call a spade a spade: swearing is uncivil. It is considered bad manners in cultures and religions worldwide.

With this in mind, here’s my recommendation: cut it out. Chances are that if your clients (customers, patients, stakeholders, funders, you name it) were to see what really goes on behind closed doors, they would lose faith in your company’s professionalism and integrity, with all that that implies. (Plus, would you feel proud for them to see it in the first place?)

And chances are that if you took a closer look at your organizational values you would see that using profanities contradicts or at least erodes each and every one of them.

To boot, swearing looks bad on the person who is doing it. It doesn’t make you appear smarter, funnier, measured or emotionally intelligent. And you are likely inadvertently offending or engendering fear in some of those around you without even knowing it.

Shaking off a profanities habit is difficult—for individuals, for managers, and for organizations who strive to align the culture with values and superb customer service. It may take time, gumption, and lots of effort, but it’s worth it.



P.S. Language is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal. Check our previous blog posts on the effects of speaking a second language on the job, the ways the language we choose shape our thinking, and the use of sarcasm.

And, as always, don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions or to ask about our services.

This entry was posted in Blog, Miscellaneous, Respectful Workplace, Workplace Incivility. Bookmark the permalink.


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