Four-letter words in the workplace: does anyone give a ****?

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Sometimes letting out a loud four-letter word can be just what the doctor ordered. But it would be inappropriate to say it at work – or would it?

UK researchers found in a study that swearing actually helped co-workers build relationships with one another and enabled them to express their feelings.

Anne Kreamer from The Harvard Business Review said swearing helped her in her first banking jobs and granted her access to the kind of casual gossiping and information-trading upon which deals are sometimes built. “Swearing,” as one senior female attorney told Kreamer, “gives others, men and women, reciprocal permission to let their hair down and feel comfortable sharing revelations.”

Nevertheless, many employers continue to  take swearing very seriously. Look no further than the infamous former Yahoo CEO who was terminated by the board of directors after letting rip on employees. In one incident the former CEO told employees she would “drop kick them to f***ing Mars” if they were found to be leaking any information to the public. Goldman Sachs went further, and even banned swear words censored with asterisks!

Foul language in the workplace – things to consider

  • obscene language in the workplace is more common, and therefore practically speaking probably more acceptable, in high-stress jobs
  • any type of profanity might be offensive to some people, but the biggest problem is when the swearing is directed at co-workers, bosses, employees or customers (swearing at inanimate objects like office machinery is far less likely to be a cause for concern)
  • people who get offended by foul language often won’t inform the speaker of their feelings, so lack of complaints does not mean acceptance
  • leaders using bad language risk their co-workers perceiving them to be unable to control emotion or handle situations with the necessary tact and diplomacy, or someone who lacks professionalism
  • foul langauge can indicate a limited, or dormant, vocabulary, which is bad for people in roles to which eloquence, articulateness or creativity is central
  • the use of obscene language is often involved in, or contributes to, sexual harassment cases
  • a person using vulgar language may be perceived by co-workers as lower in intelligence and patience, or someone who is angry, tense, impatient or frustrated
  • a person who swears with employees is probably also likely to be using similar crude language with clients and customers, which could present an image problem
  • using the occasional bad word here or there is often regarded as different from using frequent long streams of four-letter words


James V O’Connor, author of the seminal Cuss Control: The Complete Book on How to Curb Your Cursing classifies swearing into casual (“Hello mate, how the f*** are you?”) and causal (“The f***ing photocopier’s f***ed again”). Casual swearing can be intended humour or lazy language when the speaker doesn't make the effort to use a more meaningful word. Causal swearing is caused by an emotion like pain, anger, or frustration. O’Connor, a reformed foul-mouth himself, sensibly suggests cutting out at least casual swearing in the workplace.



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