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Is Swearing Acceptable At Work?

On social media this week, we discussed the topic of swearing, and in particular swearing at work and if it’s acceptable or if it’s just a massive no, no?

On social media this week, we discussed the topic of swearing, and in particular swearing at work and if it’s acceptable or if it’s just a massive no, no?

If swearing is OK in your workplace, are there any taboos or is it c-bomb central?

Swearing is becoming more and more acceptable in traditional and social media, with F-word peppering magazine articles and puncturing blogs, vlogs and ‘lives’ from entrepreneurs and motivational speakers like Tony Robbins and Gary Vaynerchuk.

But is swearing an effective route to rich self-expression or a lazy shorthand which masks the truth and lowers the tone for everyone?

Although some believe that swearing is a sign that the speaker lacks vocabulary, recent research has found that it may in fact display a more intelligent use of language. A study by psychologists from Marist College found links between how fluent a person is in the English language and how fluent they are in swearing.

A study reported in Science Alert challenged volunteers to think of as many words beginning with a certain letter of the alphabet as they could in one minute. It found that people with greater language skills could generally think of more examples in the allotted time than others.

The researchers then created the swearing fluency task which required volunteers to list as many different swear words as they could think of in a minute. By comparing scores from both the verbal and swearing fluency tasks, it was found that the people who scored highest on the verbal fluency test also tended to do best on the swearing fluency task. The weakest in the verbal fluency test also did poorly on the swearing fluency task.

What this correlation suggests is that swearing isn’t simply a sign of language poverty, lack of general vocabulary, or low intelligence. Instead, swearing appears to be a feature of language that an articulate speaker can use in order to communicate with maximum effectiveness. And actually, some uses of swearing go beyond just communication.

So, what do you think? It was fascinating to hear the reaction on this. On one side was an “absolutely not, never acceptable” view, with Ed Sutcliffe calling it “a very low form of communication used to shock and offend” and on the other, “absolutely – swearing should be used when necessary to portray a feeling or point. As long as it’s never used aggressively.”

The key, I feel, here and what many of you said, is knowing your audience. There’s nothing worse than that person who just swears all the time for the hell of it, but the view seemed to be that if there were a few, purposively placed swear words in the right context and in front of the right audience then it was acceptable.

As Spencer Hudson commented on Instagram, “I believe that language which helps articulate a point is valid, but you’ve got to know the audience, or you may not understand the risk. What’s said ultimately isn’t important, it’s what people think of it. If you judge correctly, then profanity is an important tool, but a misjudge of usage can be disastrous.”

Jackie Handy via LinkedIn agreed: “In my private life I swear often, in my corporate world it’s different. Very much audience/subject dependent. I think swearing for swearing sake is unnecessary but the occasional word that shows I’m human, fallible and open can actually help engagement and rapport.”

There is also a genuine love for swearing out there it seems. “I love well placed swearing. It’s one of my personal joys,” said Haider Imam via LinkedIn. “I think at work, it can contribute to a sense of candour, which is gold dust. For me, as long as it’s playful, in awe, or to purposefully provoke when coaching it’s good. If it’s from anger or frustration, then it’s totally c*cking not.” Teacher Hugh Ogilvie referred to it as a “fantastic stress reliever,” outside the classroom, obviously.

I think most of us are in agreement that swearing can be beneficial, but it totally depends on the context.

But how can you tell if someone’s going to take offence if you don’t know them? Maybe that’s why speaker Bryony Thomas has worked hard to press delete on swear words from the stage, because you can’t tell who’s in a large audience?

It can be hugely nuanced. Even a low-level s-bomb can come out all wrong if accompanied by what might be inadvertently aggressive body language. Likewise, some of the most taboo words can be a great equaliser when accompanied with a cheeky grin, especially to diffuse tension or shake people from a ‘stuck state’, as alluded to by Haider.

In my opinion, I try to avoid swearing at work in the same way as I no longer use the words ‘guys’. But I will call a shit sandwich a shit sandwich, because it’s shit. I’ve tried to call it an S H one T sandwich and it’s just not the same!

And I may throw in the occasional Shut the F…….ront Door which never fails to make me laugh and tends to lighten the mood, whatever the audience.

I guess there are questions about the validity of swearing and what it actually adds to a conversation or talk as rightly brought up by Steven Dowd via LinkedIn.

“I prefer to work with unreserved authentic people, I can see how in a work environment it could be intimidating to be around and in a client situation it feels inappropriate. Personally, I don’t mind if it’s used to emphasise intensity of a point but otherwise there are a tonne of ways to express oneself. I suppose I’d ask… What does swearing add? If you don’t add expletives, what do you lose?”

I’m not here to tell you whether it’s OK to swear in the various situations you find yourself in at work and in life in general or not. Here at Gravitas HQ, our take on it is that it’s about being appropriate and respectful to the people you’re with.

Let’s definitely keep talking about this fascinating topic though – please do let us know your thoughts.

23 Comments

  1. Jamie

    whether it is acceptable or not is one thing, respecting your peers is another, There is no way of knowing whether you may cause a colleague offence by swearing unless you ask, asking first is a higher level of respect. The highest level of respect is to refrain from swearing without even asking.

    Reply
    • Antoinette Dale Henderson

      Interesting point, Jamie. Just because it’s a swearing culture, shouldn’t mean that someone who finds it offensive puts up with it. That would be inapproprate and disrespectful. And so often swearing has gendered undertones that many are not even aware of. Thanks for your contribution

      Reply
      • Steven M

        People need to consider others faiths and beliefs too.

        Personally I never swear and I find it create a atmosphere of negatitey in the office.

        Plus what is the limit on swearing? How offensive can people be.

        Sadly swearing is one of the worst habits society now had. It upsets me when I hear young children say ver explicit words.

        Your words have consequences.

        Reply
        • Antoinette Dale Henderson

          Thank you for your input, Steven M, particularly highlighting the impact that swearing can have on people’s faiths and beliefs. This boils down to respect, however I have a feeling that many people don’t realise the impact they’re having when they use these words. All the best, Antoinette

          Reply
  2. Jacob Orion

    Jamie,

    That is only common sense. Sad to see the author missed the most important point of all. Thanks for making it clear.

    Reply
  3. Joyce Bergin

    We all have to put up with things we don’t like, and obsessing over what will offend either ourselves or others can’t be good for mental health. We’re adults, go for it.

    Reply
    • Antoinette Dale Henderson

      Thank you, Joyce, it’s amazing to see how diverse people’s opinions are on this topic. All best to you Antoinette

      Reply
  4. Anthea

    I’m in the “it’s completely acceptable in the correct context” camp.

    Colleagues know I’m very expressive, passionate and very much a potty mouth. I may use swearing to diffuse tense situations by generating amusement instead. Or it may just come out in frustration but is never directed at a colleague.

    I believe they would be comfortable to pull me up on it, if it did make them squirm. Most just appreciate my authenticity and honesty. I’m a straight talking, often a bit sweary, Yorkshire woman, there is no ambiguity!

    Reply
    • Antoinette Dale Henderson

      Thank you for your comment, Anthea, it’s fascinating to see the diversity of views expressed here. I agree, context is everything, as long as everyone is in agreement. All the best, Antoinette

      Reply
  5. Allan Harvey

    Interesting article Antoinette. I agree with Jamie.
    I don’t agree with the research that swearing could be a more intelligent use of the language. Intelligent use of the English language would be using words such as livid instead of p….d off.
    May I ask why blasphemy is not being discussed here? That is the very worst kind of swearing. Instead of OMG why not say Oh my hat. Hearing people swear using the name Jesus Christ really hurts because He is the person in whose name I pray every day. It is sacred and ought to be respected.
    If someone swears in my company I ask that they refrain from using that language especially blasphemy.

    Reply
    • Maggie

      Yes I had a problem with blasphemy from a Skype training call with 30 others. I sent the trainer an email that I find it offensive and copied my line manager in. She didn’t do it as much but said God instead!!! Um. My line manager said to tell her if it carries on. It was unprofessional of the trainer.

      Reply
      • Antoinette Dale Henderson

        And thank you for sharing your perspective, Maggie, both here and with your manager and the trainer. It may be that the trainer’s behaviour was completely unconscious, it’s unlikely that they deliberately wanted to offend. By raising your concerns you will have alerted them to your views and broadened out their perspective on the diversity of opinions within their audience. All best wishes Antoinette

        Reply
    • Antoinette Dale Henderson

      Thank you, Alan, you make a very good point, which reflects Steven M’s point around respecting people’s faiths and beliefs.

      I applaud you for voicing your concerns when colleagues use language which offends you. It’s only by raising awareness of different people’s opinions and beliefs that we create the environment for change. All best wishes Antoinette

      Reply
  6. Colin Holce

    Swearing is more prevalent in certain industries.
    I find from experience that construction is the worst.

    Reply
    • Antoinette Dale Henderson

      Thank you for sharing your perspective, Colin, I’ve found that too. Working across many industries, I’ve noticed that what’s acceptable in one is unacceptable in another. However, thankfully, people across all industries are waking up to the negative impact of remarks, actions or swear words that are disrespectful to certain groups and changing their behaviour accordindgly, which imo has got to be a good thing. all best wishes, Antoinette

      Reply
  7. Neil F. Liversidge

    or 13 years I chaired The Motorcycle Action Group – MAG – a bikers’ pressure group. To maintain order and respect I couldn’t treat people like little kids but a line had to be drawn somewhere, so I ruled that in a meeting it was okay to swear in conversation but never at anyone. So for example, at a National Committee meeting, it was okay for somebody to say “the Transport Minister is a **** so long as he wasn’t present, but it was never okay to say to somebody else in the meeting, whoever they were, “you are a ****.” It worked well for my tenure and every subsequent chair has applied the same rule.

    I have the same rule for the staff in my company. It’s okay to vent so long as the clients don’t hear it and so long as you don’t do it at anyone. Colleagues can put the phone down and say “what a ****” just so long as they don’t say it before they put the phone down!

    Reply
    • Antoinette Dale Henderson

      Thank you for sharing, Neil. What I value about your approach with MAG is that you were extremely clear at the outset what was OK and what wasn’t OK. I guess people then had a choice as to whether they wanted to conform to that, or not, in which case they had the choice to leave or stay 🙂

      Hopefully the situation you describe in your last paragraph doesn’t happen to often, I find it makes for a more relaxing environment when we have a good relationship with our clients 🙂 Wishing you all the best, Antoinette

      Reply
  8. Antoinette Dale Henderson

    Thank you, Jacob, for your contribution

    Reply
  9. Thomas Mammen Tharakan

    This is a classic example of the debate between the Good & the Pleasant (borrowed from Katha Upanishad).

    The Pleasant is a consequence of economics, garnering approval and seeking gain. It is not absolute and keeps evolving depending upon the changing perceptions of “value”. It does not mean absence of standards or conviction. Just that it is an X% diluted solution which is required for survival in both personal/professional life; value of X varying from person to person.

    The Good, on the other hand, has no “metrics” for measurement. It is beyond the dualities of success/failure, likes/dislikes, loss/gain. It does not guarantee anything beyond the realm of ‘Self’. In a pressing scenario, it may even antagonize others from us.

    Swearing is ‘pleasant’. When enough number of people feel it has “value”, swearing could also become “acceptable” because “it works”.

    Is it possible to express oneself (care, recognition, disagreement, dissatisfaction, anger) without resorting to swearing?
    Yes, we can.
    But would that approach be “effective”? Well, maybe, maybe not.

    Reply
    • Antoinette Dale Henderson

      Thank you, Thomas. What a fascinating, philosophical perspective, much appreciated

      Reply
  10. Digisha Modi

    How Swearing at workplace is matter of perspective. You won’t find it 100% acceptable but there are takers for it. It definitely helps express our strong feelings which we can’t express in any other words. I would not recommend swearing everywhere and in front of everyone. Like all other skills, use it right time and it will have the right impact.
    However, there are other words apart from swear words that I find totally unacceptable. “Hmmm” and “K” – when I read these words used in written communication at workplace to respond, I can’t help swearing!!!

    Reply
  11. Angel Gomes

    Yes and No, depending on the context of conversation especially in meetings No. If general chat and you use S&£@ word it is fine. If my manager asks me how are you feeling? I will say SH£&@, not well does not express it at all at that moment. I don’t like swearing but sometimes cannot be helped, definitely no no front of children. It’s an adult environment, just have to be careful not all likes it. I tend to use ’shoot’ sizzle or freaking 🙂

    Reply
  12. Arthur Touw

    NO, why do people have to swear, there are enough adjectives in the English language. Being foul mouthed really does little for your character, other than to say perhaps you were brought up badly or you really have no idea to Express yourself. To me it is actually work place harassment or if direct towards a group, work place bullying.

    Reply

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