Your Office Guide to Swearing At Work

Your Office Guide to Swearing At Work


There are many problems with profanity. It’s jarring. It’s potentially offensive. It can seem a little familiar. But there are many wonderful things about profanity, too. It’s jarring. It’s potentially offensive.

It can seem a little familiar… and unhinged… and manic. But there are times – in business and in life – when unhinged and manic are exactly what you need to be. But before we figure out how to utilise profanity, let’s figure out why it’s so powerful.

According to Melissa Mohr, author of the fascinating book Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, we all have profane thoughts – it’s just that our brains typically knock them down before we say them.

Consider the 10% to 30% percent of Tourette’s syndrome patients who suffer from coprolalia, the uncontrollable utterance of obscene words.

Related: This Advice Is For You, Smart-Ass

Mohr writes: “Many people have such thoughts, but their prefrontal cortex – the executive area of their brains – overrides and shuts them down.

“The current theory is that people with Tourette’s syndrome have a problem in an area of the brain called the basal ganglia, which plays a role in making choices among several actions and inhibiting certain motor functions. The executive areas of their brains can fight against their limbic urges for a time… but eventually the lower brain wins.”

Unfiltered language

So it’s not that people with coprolalia have more profane thoughts; it’s that they’re unable to prevent them from being spoken. Profanities aren’t added to our thoughts – they’re there all along. When we utter a profanity, we’re not adding to our language, we’re simply not suppressing it.

Profanities represent honest, authentic thoughts, and hearing them is a powerful, memorable thing. As Mohr points out, when US college professor Timothy Jay gave subjects a list of 36 ‘taboo’ and ‘non-taboo’ words, the top five the subjects recalled were from the first category.

The good kind of profanity

Not that many people want to go on record saying it, but there is a good kind of profanity.

Mikael Berner, co-founder and CEO of US-based app company Mountain View, says of his company, “We don’t have a hard and fast rule about swearing, but we do have a hard and fast rule about being respectful to others. Swearing can express surprise and delight, and it can also be derogatory – and if it’s used in that latter fashion, it’s unacceptable.”

But then he told us a story about a business he had worked at where his manager was adored by the employees.

“He was a really good leader, and he served customers well. For some reason swearing was part of the culture. I don’t know how they never managed to make it seem derogatory, but I never experienced it that way.”

The reason it didn’t seem derogatory is that it probably wasn’t derogatory. This is the good kind of profanity. And what good profanity can uncover is, well, goodness, not badness. This is profanity spoken out of joy, excitement, comfort. Even if it’s spoken out of frustration, its goal is to bring people closer and get them excited.

The test is: Are you smiling when you say it? Even if you’re not smiling on the outside, are you smiling on the inside? If there’s no smiling, then what you’re getting involved in is menace.

The bad kind

The bad kind is very, very bad. The fact that you’re using profanity is almost incidental; it’s the tone of your voice that’s most important – whether you sound like you’re angry.

If you’re attempting to bluster around and freak people out, profanity is only going to accentuate the fact that you’re out of control. And out of control may work in the short-term to shut people down or motivate them, but in the long-term things will break down. The awful residue of angry profanity isn’t worth the momentary relief.

This is why most people say not to use it. Ever. Even the guy who wrote a book about it says not to do it, mainly because of the historical volatility of the words themselves. Says Jesse Sheidlower, editor of The F-Word: “The important thing is how words are used, not how they have been used historically.

“Things may become less offensive over time, as with almost everything. But any racial or ethnic or religious term referring to a specific group has become vastly more offensive over time. If I were running a company, I would always take a cautious approach.”

Here’s a cautious approach: Don’t do it. Unless.

Unless what you’re saying could be made funnier, more entertaining, more memorable, more honest, more authentic. Because when profanity is used the right way, what you’re granting is honesty and friendship.

For your professional associates, profanity is a window into what you’re actually thinking. When you’re forcefully making a point via the employment of an expletive, you’re bringing people closer to you and letting them in.

But what does the lawyer say?

We spoke with Michael Zweig, partner at New York’s Loeb & Loeb, to find out the legal issues related to profanity in the workplace.

What are the possible legal issues surrounding profanity in a work environment?

You make yourself a target for future litigation if you know an individual is highly sensitised to certain types of speech, and it’s repeated. If a particular individual is subjected to speech on a repeated basis after making it known that it is offensive to them, it could be regarded then as personal and directed at that person, as opposed to the environment in general.

We’d never do that. Mostly we just yell out profanities due to excitement.

With entrepreneurs it may be an open office environment, and someone may have a primal scream from their desk that may be disruptive or inappropriate, but it would not reasonably be seen as being directed at a particular employee.

If, on the other hand, you’re using sexualised words, frequent usages of those words and behaviour may be taken as sexual harassment or creation of a hostile environment.

Use common sense.

Bottom line? Profanity need not be excised from the workplace completely.

Key Technical Matters

Everyone has profane thoughts. It’s just that most of the time, our brain’s prefrontal cortex shuts them down. In our professional lives, the prefrontal cortex is working very, very hard.

When employing a string of profanities, it’s best not to jump up and down, Yosemite Sam’s communication approach notwithstanding.

  • It’s okay to say frickin’. It’s okay to say frackin’. It’s not okay to say frickin’ fracking.’ Unless of course you’re talking about fracking, the process by which rock layers are fractured by pressurised liquid in order to release petroleum or gas, in which case frickin’ frackin’ is the funniest possible way to refer to the subject.
  • Dadgummit! works only if you’re from the Deep South.
  • Curses! Works only if you’re from the 19th century.
  • $#&*% works only in cartoons. “Dollar sign, pound sign, ampersand, asterisk, percentage” is not an effective profanity when spoken aloud.
  • Either say it or don’t say it. ‘What the F?’ No. ‘You gotta be S-ing me.’ No. ‘When the K did you get here?’ No. (What does K stand for anyway?)
  • What the hey? Absolutely not.
  • What the H-E-double hockey sticks? We’re not even going to dignify that with a [expletive deleted] response.

Disclaimer No. 1:

This column will assume that your every professional move is not determined by a team of lawyers who are advising you that any use of profanity — especially ‘sexualised’ profanity — could result in a lawsuit.

Disclaimer No. 2:

The writer of this column works in an office in which profanity isn’t frowned upon. Mainly because it’s fun and, sometimes, funny. (For instance, there are two ways to say, “Hand me that stapler,” and only one is amusing.)

Disclaimer No. 3:

If you’re reading this column to find out whether or not to use profanity around customers, the answer is: No [expletive deleted] way.

Related: 9 Reasons to Quit Your Job As Soon As You Can