Talk About Talk - Communication Skills Training

Talk About Talk - Communication Skills Training


Is it OK to Swear at Work? (ep.149)

January 22, 2024

Is it ok to swear at work? Do you use profanity at work? Dr. Andrea Wojnicki shares the myths about profanity and highlights what the research says about the pros and cons of swearing at work.


 


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TRANSCRIPT


Well, hello there and welcome to the Talk About Talk podcast. Today I’m going to help us answer an important question: Is it OK to swear at work?


Recently I had a consult, a short virtual introductory meeting with a prospective client. Let’s call her Candace. I immediately liked Candace. I could tell she was incredibly ambitious. Super smart and very keen to boost her communication skills. She had what you would call a strong personality. I also noticed that she swore. Like a lot. Like, not just. Oh God or WTF. She was dropping F bombs. At one point in our conversation, I even made a joke about this, mentioning that as a communication coach, I have to highlight that she uses profanity excessively compared to most of my executive clients. Her response was basically, “I’m going to talk the way I’m going to talk.”


OK…


After Candace hired me to help her with her communication skills, I spoke with her manager. I often do this so I can get a better feel for where the real opportunities are for my clients. Her manager told me that Candace has got to stop swearing. Her colleagues and clients all find it offensive. 


The good news is that Candace immediately agreed that she’s going to make this change. And she’s done so. Every now and then, in one of our coaching sessions, she’ll let one slip. But then she always has a big smile and she apologizes.  At least she’s become very aware of it.


This experience with Candace and her manager, and specifically with what her manager told me about how her clients and colleagues were so offended with her profanity, really got me thinking about the impact of profanity at work. 


Last month, I ran an informal poll on LinkedIn, with the  simple Q: Do you swear at work?  And two possible answers.  Yes or No.  I figured most people do just a little bit, and I wanted to force them into a Yes or No answer. But of course, there’s the snippy comment made by my friend Hilton Barber, the culture expert, who said I was hoping one of the options would be. F*** Yes.  


The results of this poll surprised me.  Of course it’s unscientific, But can you guess what proportion said No and what proportion said Yes? 63% of the respondents to this LinkedIn poll said no, they do NOT swear at work, and 37% said YES they do. So its more like 2/3 1/3.


So apparently only a third of us ever do.


Now, in this episode, I’d like to help us answer another Q: Is it OK to swear at work?


Welcome to TAT episode 149 – where I’m going to help us answer the question: Is it OK to swear at work? I’m going to take you through some myths about profanity, and the then the benefits and disadvantages of swearing at work. Yes, there is academic research that I’m going to share with you that highlights some of these specific pros and cons. Then we’ll all be in a better position to evaluate whether it’s OK to swear at work.


First though, let me introduce myself. My name is Dr. Andrea Wojnicki and I’m your executive communication coach. Please call me Andrea!

I’m the founder of Talk About Talk, where I coach communication skills to ambitious executives like you so I can help you elevate your communication, your confidence and your clarity, so you’ll get noticed and you can accomplish your career goals.


If you go to the TalkaboutTalk.com website, you’ll find many resources to help you out. There’s information there about one-on-one coaching, online courses, some amazing bootcamps that I run every few months, corporate workshops, the archive of this bi-weekly podcast, AND, I really hope you’ll sign up for the Talk About Talk newsletter. That newsletter is your chance to get free communication coaching from me every week. 


OK – let’s talk profanity.


A few years ago I interviewed professor, Darin Flynn, from the University of Calgary. Darren. In the linguistics department, Darin teaches a course on rap lyrics. As you might imagine, Darren gets into profanity in this class. If you want to learn a lot more about profanity from a linguistics perspective. I encourage you to listen to talk about talk episode number 23. There are actually 2 versions of this episode. One where you’ll hear some profanity. And another version where it’s cleaned up. You get to choose. 


By the way, this episode is clean. I am not going to swear. 


I learned a lot from Professor Flynn. Spent a lot of time talking about how, for example. How fascinating it is that the words that come out of our mouth literally the sounds that we make. With our lips and our tongue and our cheeks and our teeth and our breath. Combine to form different sounds and how we as humans create associations and social meaning around them. And some of those sounds become profane. Over the years. Profanity has served different purposes. For example Over the centuries and the decades. Profanity in the form of cursing deity and cursing Gods was considered the worst, most profane language. There’s also the words for urine and excrement. Turns out there’s a good reason for these literally filthy words to be profane. These are things that, if they’re not kept cleaned up, could kill us, right? Then there’s profanity associated with our bodies. This could include our urine and excrement, and also our sexual organs and other sexual intercourse.  Yes, I’m talking about the F-bomb.


And more recently, Professor Flynn pointed out  that these days, “the most profane, the most offensive words in the English language are the ones that are derogatory to minorities.”  In fact, those are the profanities that Professor Flynn himself refuses to say. Think about the N word or the C word and consider that for a moment. We now live in a society where these words that denigrate racial and gender minorities are the most profane. Isn’t that just wonderful?  The worst possible things you can say, the most profane expressions, are derogatory towards minorities.  I love that.  It makes me feel optimistic.


So anyway, I encourage you to listen to this interview if you’re really interested in profanity, but let me just tell you this, after I had this conversation with Darin Flynn, I started thinking about profanity more objectively (these words are just arbitrary sounds coming out of our mouths, right?) and …I started swearing more often. A lot more often. I was fascinated to see people’s responses. I was also fascinated to see how quickly the people around me joined in. As we know, swearing is contagious. Everyone in my house was swearing So I remember a few weeks after my interview with Professor Flynn, I was thinking – Enough. We had gone way over overboard and it was not acceptable. So we implemented the swear jar. You swear, you owe a looney. Amazing how quickly the swearing stopped.


Nowadays my mantra is “save it for when you need it.” I say that  lot to m y teenaged kids.  And now I say the same thing to my coaching client Candace.  


And here we are.  


Let’s talk about the myths associated with profanity.


 


Myths About Swearing 


People have a lot of misconceptions about swearing. I’m going to group them into three main myths. Yes of course three. 


The first myth is


  1. Swearing Doesn’t Relieve Pain: WRONG. Contrary to this myth, research has shown that swearing can actually help in tolerating pain. The emotional release that comes with swearing can provide a temporary relief from pain. (OK, good to know)
  2. Swearing is Always Negative or Harmful: WRONG Swearing can be negative or harmful.  But it can also express excitement, surprise, or even solidarity and camaraderie. It can serve as a form of emotional release or stress relief. In some cultures (I mean like country cultures and possibly corporate cultures), profanity can be a harmless way of expressing strong emotions or relieving stress. The 3rd myth is a common one that I want to correct right now.  It’s this:
  3. Swearing Indicates a Limited Vocabulary: and/or low IQ: WRONG. And WRONG. People who use swear words often have a robust vocabulary; they choose to use swear words for their emotional impact or as a form of expression. And swearing is not inherently linked to intelligence. Swearing can be a strategic tool for emphasis or to convey strong emotions and is not limited to any particular level of vocabulary or intelligence.

So, the next time someone brings up one of these myths, like how profanity doesn’t relieve pain, or that it’s always harmful or negative, or that it indicates a limited vocabulary or low IQ, you know better!


You’re welcome.


Now I’m excited to share with you the academic research on profanity. This research spans across many disciplines, including psychology and sociolinguistics. Linguistics, neuroscience, cognitive studies. Business and management studies, the social sciences and cultural studies. I’m going to draw on 2 main papers that I found that specifically look at the impact of profanity in the workplace. There’s a paper from 2017 called Swearing at Work, the mixed outcomes of Profanity in the Journal of Managerial Psychology. And there’s a paper from 10 years before that, in 2007 called Swearing at work and permissive Leadership Culture, when antisocial becomes Social and Incivility is acceptable. This is from the Leadership and Organizational Development Journal. I’ll leave links to both of these papers, which are available as PDF’s in the show notes.


Let me start by saying that. There is absolutely not a singular answer to the question of. Whether it’s OK to swear at work, but what this research does is clearly define in a disciplined way the impact of profanity – the specific pros and cons. 


If you’re like me. You might be a little bit surprised to learn about some of the pros or advantages of using profanity.


 


ARGUMENTS FOR SWEARING – The Pros


Let’s start there. The advantages or positive impacts for using profanity at work? Based on my reading of this research, there are 4 general benefits of swearing at work. These include 


Establishing a positive culture, social bonding, stress relief, and identity formation.


 


ESTABLISHING A FUN, PERMISSIVE CULTURE


One of the research papers concluded that managers are face with a choice, or really a continuum, of where to place their corporate culture, ranging from the most permissive to the most authoritative. The most authoritative culture could include an all out ban on all profanity. The alternative. A much more fun culture. Would be more permissive. The question is how much profanity to permit?  And the interesting point here is that employees may equate some level of profanity in the workplace with a more permissive and fun culture. As the researchers conclude,


“The challenge for leaders is to master the “art” of knowing when to turn a blind eye to norms of communication that, do not confer with their own standards.”


 


BONDING


2nd, there’s plenty of research that highlights the SOCIAL benefits of profanity in the workplace. Positive outcomes of swearing at the group level include an increased sense of belonging, mutual trust, group affiliation, bonding, cohesion, and solidarity. 


They also talked about the connection between swearing and humor. Where employees may use profanity in a quote, un-quote humorous way to develop friendships at work.


It’s not surprising to learn that language varies in different subgroups. So imagine for example, a group that was highlighted in one of the papers.: The warehouse workers. They speak differently than the front office workers, who speak differently than the senior executives. And profanity can be a significant signal of group solidarity.


So that’s the second benefit of swearing at work. Social bonding. The first was establishing a fun, permissive culture and the 2nd is this social bonding. The third is stress relief.


 


STRESS RELIEF


We’ve all personally experienced and probably witnessed people in highly stressful situations, whether it’s mental or physical letting off steam by swearing. This phenomenon is common in the workplace where employees talk about verbally letting off steam, or expressing their anger and frustration, through profanity.


It was noted that profanity may be a cathartic mechanism for coping with emotional work. I hadn’t thought if it quite like that before.  But sometime swearing can feel cathartic. I immediately thought of physicians who work in emergency or palliative care departments – . Extremely emotional and stressful work, letting off steam, perhaps with profanity.  I recently had a conversation with a firefighter who told me some of his colleagues do this too.


So that’s the third advantage for using profanity in the workplace. Stress relief. We’ve covered establishing a fun and permissive culture. Social bonding and now stress relief. The 4th and last benefit of using profanity in the workplace is identity formation. This is an interesting one.


 


IDENTITY FORMATION


Research shows that at an interpersonal level ,swearing and profanity is sometimes used to get attention, to emphasize an important point, to persuade, or to establish a sense of urgency. Of course! When people use profanity, especially when we’re not used to it, we stand up to attention, don’t we?


People also use profanity to convey authority.  This shows up when power is imbalanced, and for example in terms of gender differences,. Interestingly, the research indicates that  swearing was reported as beneficial to female executives who wanted to demonstrate assertiveness and earn respect in male-dominated environments. Talk about identity formation!


This stuff is fascinating. In mixed company, men swear less, and women swear more. It’s like they’re accommodating the other with their language, in order to gain approval. 


So those are the four arguments for swearing. Swearing and using profanity can establish a more fun and permissive culture. It can contribute to social bonding at work. It can serve to relieve stress. And it can serve in terms of identity formation.


So, are you convinced? Are you ready to start swearing more at work? Hold on, let me share with you the arguments against swearing the cons.


 


ARGUMENTS AGAINST SWEARING – The CONS

Even after accounting for some of the myths associated with profanity, like, I’m thinking about the myth that people will believe you have. A weaker vocabulary. If you resort to using profanity, that’s simply not true. The research shows that people who use profanity typically do have a broader, more expansive vocabulary. That said, there are many, many, I would say very compelling reasons. Why you should not use profanity at work.


According to the research, the specific reasons why we shouldn’t use profanity, the specific negative outcomes include: A perception of lack of respect. A perception of a lack of leadership skills. A perception of lack of control. The potential to create conflict. And generally the potential to degrade one’s image. A negative general perception.


In addition to all of this, there’s also research that shows, despite what I mentioned before about. Using profanity. About the benefit of using profanity in terms of it serving as a stress relief, using profanity can also increase stress.


Research shows that even when profanity is not directed at someone and not personally abusive, it is often still offensive. And generates greater levels of stress rather than dissipating it. Furthermore, when it is abusive or directed at someone. Well, They’ll definitely be less. Motivated at work and in a more extreme case. They may bring a lawsuit against the organization. In one. Legal case that was described in the research. A manager. Described his personal assistant to her face as being an intolerable B on a Monday morning. She immediately resigned, sued for constructive dismissal and one.


So the cons. This way we shouldn’t. The disadvantages and reasons why we shouldn’t use profanity. Include. The perception of a lack of respect, a lack of leadership skills, a lack of control, creating conflict. Generally degrading. The image of the person using the profanity. And. Increasing stress. Decreasing motivations and as I said, in extreme cases. Ensuing litigation.


Well that’s pretty compelling to me.


Where do you stand now on this question of is it OK to swear at work?


Here’s your quick summary.


3 myths about swearing:


  1.  Profanity doesn’t relieve pain – WRONG
  2.  Profanity is always harmful or negative – WRONG
  3.  Using profanity indicates a limited vocabulary or low IQ – WRONG


Now you know better!


And the 4 benefits of using profanity:


  1. Establishing a positive culture

  2. Social bonding

  3. Stress relief

  4. Identity formation.

And the disadvantages or negative impacts:


If you do swear, you might suffer from a lack of respect, a lack of leadership skills, a lack of control, you might create conflict, increase stress, decrease motivations, and possibly even get sued.


Here’s where I stand. Certainly in most cases, in particular in the presence of customers or clients profanity should be discouraged. Let’s say “Virtually banned.” As I said at the very beginning I’ll save it for the rare occasions when I need it. This is our rule now in our house.


I’d love to hear what you think.


There are several ways that you can contact me. You can message me on LinkedIn. Please connect with me if we’re not connected already. And if you go to the Talkabouttalk.com website, you can leave me a voicemail message. I would love to hear your voice or you can fill out the contact form that’s in the about section. Anyway, I would love to hear from you. Thank you so much for listening and talk soon.


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