Profanity in the Workplace
Holy Sh*t, Potty Mouth: Is Salty Language Fair Game at the Office?
Does Swearing Belong in the Workplace?
Some of the most colorful language I've ever heard has been uttered over cubicle walls and on factory floors in the workplace. And I mean creative, eye-popping combinations of expletives I would never have imagined stringing together myself.
Whether you report to work in a uniform or a business suit, you have probably heard your share of foul language on the job. But does swearing really belong there?
Some people say, "Hell, yeah!" while others say save your gutter talk for after work.
How often do you swear at work?
Filthy Language on the Job: Should You Clean up Your Act?
Why We Curse
Frequency of Cursing
It's time that we own up to the fact that we like to swear. A helluva lot. Swearing sneaks its way into 3% of our conversations at work and 13% of adult conversations in leisure environments.
On average, curse words comprise 0.3% to 0.7% of spoken language. Compare that to commonly used personal pronouns (e.g., "I," "you," "he," "she," and "it") that together make up 1% of our speech.1
Conveying A Strong Message
Expletives pack an emotional punch, conveying strong feelings such as joy, fear, anger, or surprise. They are attention-grabbing, too, as they typically consist of references to culturally taboo subjects such as sexuality, blasphemy, and demographic slurs.
If cursing is a frequent habit, you may be unaware of just how filthy your language is. That's because curse words can be a type of automatic speech, used to fill space between a person's thoughts and ideas. Curse words thus can fulfill the same function as "um," "ah," "er," "like," and "uh."2
Types of Taboo Words
sexual references (acts, body parts)
profane or blasphemous words (referencing a deity)
scatological or disgusting objects (e.g., feces)
animal names (e.g., pig, jackass)
ethnic, racial, gender slurs
VIDEO: Why Are Bad Words Bad?
Creative Cursing: For the Foul-Mouthed Person In Your Life
I enjoy this bawdy game for the outrageous humor, but I'd never bring this language to work. Create new, delightfully dirty curse words using this mix and match profanity generator. Guaranteed to make you laugh and perhaps even pee a little. Not for the faint of heart.
Different Levels Of Voluntary Control
Anyone who's ever slammed his or her fingers in a filing cabinet drawer knows that sometimes cuss words can pop out of nowhere -- as visceral reactions, uttered in sudden response to pain, almost like a hiccup. That's because swearing can operate at different levels of voluntary control. However, most of the time swearing is done in more controlled contexts (e.g., telling a dirty joke, hurling an insult).
Bawdy language can provide a release of adrenaline, resulting in analgesic effects for the swearer. Thus, swearing can make you feel better and allow you to tolerate pain. It increases heart rate and sets off the body's flight-or-fight response. And the more bleep-worthy the language, the more complete the relief.3 (Many women who have experienced the miracle of childbirth can attest to this.)
The Different Purposes of Swearing
What Function Does Foul Language Serve?
To insult or harm others (e.g., verbal abuse)
To add emphasis (i.e., "This is a big "f*ing deal")
To provide catharsis, release
To socialize or add levity to a situation
To express disapproval, contempt, or fear
WTF Did You Just Say?
The Social Side of Swearing On the Job
People often question whether swearing belongs in a professional environment. As a result, some workplaces have chosen to forbid filthy language.
Goldman Sachs, for example, banned expletives in written communications after an employee's email embarrassed the company during Senate hearings in 2010.4 (The employee described one of the company's mortgage securities products as "one sh*tty deal.") Computer programs now screen workers' emails and texts for over 70 curse words and phrases, as well as variations that contain asterisks.
Other companies, however, are not as quick to try to sanitize employee communications. They instead rely on managers to set an appropriate tone and trust workers to use professional judgment.
Language At Work: Do You Keep Yours Clean?
Filthy Language: On-The-Job Benefits and Big Downsides
As with any risky behavior, swearing can involve both short-term payoffs and long-term ramifications.
Research has found that "social swearing" on the job—in the context of friendly jabbing and coarse humor—can serve as a beneficial release valve for workers in high-pressure environments.5 It can build teamwork, helping the work group to become more cohesive.
Unfortunately, however, there is a double standard. Although men can garner reverence from others for letting the expletives fly, women who curse in the office are perceived to be of low moral standing. (Seriously, WTF?)
And while a one-time reference won't get most workers fired, serial swearers should be leery of offending others. According to a survey by CareerBuilder.com, habitual potty mouths may have their professionalism questioned. Employers reported that employees who frequently cursed were
- less likely to be promoted
- regarded as lacking in control and
- perceived as less mature and less intelligent.7
Companies should also be concerned because office bullies and illegal harassers frquently use swearing as a method to verbally abuse their targets. Serial swearing could contribute to a claim of a hostile work environment. For example, swearing that consists of
sexual references and namecalling (e.g., "Aren't you a b*tch today?")
slurs against a specific sex, national origin, religion, race or ethnicity, or other group with legally protected status.
Given all the downsides, I think it's clear: Clean up your damn language. At least at work.
Swearing At Work: Will It Cost You?
What Does Swearing at Work Say About You?
You may be unaware of someone's personal sensitivities until you've "popped off" an f-bomb or two at work. It may be okay ... or not.
Cursing is about context: frequency, audience, purpose, and of course the actual naughty word(s) said. But what does swearing at work say about you? Serial potty mouths tend to score higher on measures of
- hostility and
- Type A personality.
Swearing is an aggressive style of communication often uttered by alphas in a work group as a way of conveying dominance and hostility.6
Consider: Is that your intent?
Swearing telegraphs two key messages about you
- that you (the speaker) perceive yourself as the most important person present and
- that you are emotionally "lit up"—angry, happy, surprised, fearful, or in pain.
Consider: Is this the message you want to communicate?
You never know who may overhear your conversations ... co-workers with stringent beliefs? the boss? customers? executives?
Consider: What professional image do you want to project with your language and your behavior?
24 Words and Phrases That Sound Dirty ... but Really Aren't
Word or Phrase
Word or Phrase
13. homo erectus
an early species of hominin from 1.9 million years ago
very stupid or foolish
to grind or chew
relating to punishment
type of microorganism in the intestinal tract of animals
16. pussy willow
an American species of willow tree with furry catkins
to remedy or make right
a type of dog; the cross between a Cocker Spaniel and a poodle
folk name for a baby's pacifier
type of American bird
19. Shih Tzu
type of small dog breed
8. dickey (dickie)
a false shirt front
type of edible mushroom
official proclamation or fiat
cone-shaped projectile used in badminton
10. Erector set
a brand of metal toy construction sets
22. tit for tat
bent at an abrupt angle
a botanical term: forming or enclosed in a sheath
Flippin' Trash Mouth
1Grohol, J. (2009). Why Do We Swear? Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2009/03/30/why-do-we-swear/
2Kloet, J. (2013, February 18). A Special Place in the Brain for Swearing. Retrieved from https://helix.northwestern.edu/blog/2013/02/special-place-brain-swearing.
3 Corcoran, M. (2013, January 23). Why Swearing is a Bad Habit. Retrieved
4Cassell, B. L., & Lucchetti, A. (2010, July 29). George Carlin Never Would've Cut It at the New Goldman Sachs. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704895004575395550672406796
5Waters, J. (2007, October 18). What the bleep! Swearing in the office can inspire teamwork. Retrieved from http://www.marketwatch.com/story/what-the-bleep-swearing-in-the-office-can-inspire-teamwork.
6Federico-O'Murchu, L. (2014, January 27). WTF! Is your workplace a 'hotbed
of profanity?'. Retrieved from
7Dizik, A. (2011, January 25). Can you get fired for cursing at work?
Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2011/LIVING/07/25/cursing.at.work.cb/.
No More Cursing: "I Swear"
Locations Associated With No-No Words
Wash Your Dirty Mouth
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