I was recently asked about my experience with profanity at work. I thought it was a fun Q & A and decided to share my thoughts here. I could go on and on about it, but I think I’ll save some of that for later posts.
Should we, as employees, swear at work?
Whether or not anyone should or should not swear at work is an odd query because it happens, it always has and it always will. Now that television network censors allow lesser offensive terms like shit, asshole, pissed and dick, all terms coincidentally referring to bodily function and genitalia, into prime time programming it is more a reflection of the world and the workplace as it already exists.
How much trouble can we get into?
How much trouble somebody can get into for swearing depends on multiple factors. What is said is the first hurdle. Like the aforementioned terms heard on TV. Almost anyone can get away with these. Start throwing around anything more than douche-bag, which is also okay on TV, then it depends on who hears it, not necessarily who it is directed toward or what context it is in. Some people come from wholesome households where swearing is an absolute last resort of expression and akin to demonic possession. Working with good kind folks is great fun and watching your tongue around them is easy. The worst you will ever hear from them is “my word” or “hells bells” and that is about as cutting edge as they get. When I lived in the western US among Mormons in their native habitat, most of the elders never swore, some of the kids did, but what surprised me was how they all threw around the word “shit.” Shit was not a bad word, it was just a word.
In my childhood profanity was rampant. I was raised Catholic in Detroit and even heard our priest using mild curses when he was watching people driving over the curb into the church parking lot. I think he called them dumb-asses. At home and especially in the car, no vocal effluence was off limits for my father, whose favorite terms were cock-sucker and the Grand Poobah of all swear words, mother-fucker. This liberal upbringing prepared me for the world and dealing with profanity in a uniquely grounded way. Learning where, when, how, why and what to say as appropriate and with whom at a young age is what prepares you for going to work and being able to communicate properly.
Conversations in business are generally conducted without colloquialisms. You will never see a white paper or slide presentation entitled “How To Deal With Shithead Customers To Get Your Fucking Job Done Right” albeit something that should probably exist. Truly, profanity has no place in business, except when used by a fiction or comedy writer to bring a story to life, or to make a stern point in an essay such as this. This fact does not keep it from happening because it is human nature and taught to us by parents and peers as it has been for generations. The penalties for swearing at work can range from a warning or reprimand to being dismissed entirely. The context of what was said, who said it to whom and who heard it are all variables that determine what that penalty will be, if any.
I heard somebody say they walked out of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street because they could not take anymore profanity and hedonism than they witnessed in the first act. They could not believe it was a true story and that any of it happened that way. Whether it was highly exaggerated or toned down to get an R rating, if the boss swears, almost anything goes, just don’t swear at the boss unless you are sure of yourself.
Can people get fired or reported to HR for it?
It is all in the context of the workplace. If you start telling customers to go fuck themselves you are pretty much writing your own unemployment check. Then again, it depends on where you work. I clocked in time at a collection agency once where the manager, who was an excommunicated priest, yelled at Darryl “Did you tell a woman who said she didn’t have any money to strap a mattress on her back and earn some?”
Darryl retorted defensively “Fuck no! That bitch is fucking lying.” Personally, I think Darryl was lying because that sounds like something Darryl would say, but the only reprimand from the manager was “Don’t let me hear any shit like that again!”
Profanity is a tricky talent. It is not for everyone and the uninitiated must tread lightly to avoid coming off as stupid or mean. Some people should not swear at all. Like wearing particular styles, all fashions are not right for everyone. A poorly dropped F-bomb from an unexpected source, like that gentle woman in accounting who likes cats, can turn public opinion on its head. A person with the right flair for profanity can get away with it on all levels and knows when to turn it on and when to keep it off. Generally, such expressiveness is used in jest or when operating a copier, fax, computer program or other equipment that is misunderstood. No matter what work environment you are in, butcher, baker, soldier, spy; there will be swearing.
Can higher ups swear when those on the lower rung shouldn’t?
Don’t expect double standards from an employer who swears. They set the tone for their business community and if they swear, they either don’t realize how much they do, don’t expect or understand why anyone would take offense and are not surprised when profanity is used in conversation by anyone when it is in the proper context. The proper context would be discussion among peers after a level of familiarity is reached. Suppose you have a CEO of a large corporation well known for his candor and barroom etiquette. He happens upon a young trainee, first week on the job, whom he has never met and the trainee blurts out “Hey Dog! I am so glad I ran into you, I just got to say, working here is the shit! Totally stoked, fuck yeah!”
That kid is not getting promoted and will be escorted to the sidewalk momentarily. However, among his peers, those at his level who share daily tasks and routines and understand his world view, may have no trouble with his personality. The CEO with the caustic tongue, after telling the kid “Get the fuck out of my building” will continue his day and carry on like conversations with others he knows well, who know how to swear with him and have earned the right to do so simply through familiarity.
Profanity, in some ways, is an art. Like art, all of it is not for everybody. Some people shouldn’t bother painting when so many others do it so well that it comes natural and what appears on the canvas, as subjective beauty in the eye of the beholder, only offends when it is misunderstood. Therefore, the key to profanity is not doing it often, but doing it well. Even an ugly subject can be adored with the right brushstrokes.
Are there any positives to swearing at work?
It makes me feel better.
It’s a release valve for a lot of people. If people were unable to swear they may resort to more violent behavior. Given the choice, I’d rather hear that nice lady in accounting raise her voice than see her raise a gun any day.