I’ve always believed that there is a time and a place for everything, and that the workplace is neither the time nor the place to drop the F-bomb in “mixed” company. So imagine my surprise when I read that cursing in the workplace can be a positive thing.
According to a 2007 study by researchers the University of East Anglia in England, it turns out that swearing at work is “a great stress reliever, builds morale on the job, and strengthens the team.” The study found that regular use of on-the-job profanity reinforced solidarity among staff, enabling them to express their feelings such as frustration. It also helped develop social relationships, the study found.
“Employees use swearing on a continuous basis, but not necessarily in a negative, abusive manner. Swearing was used as a social phenomenon to reflect solidarity and enhance group cohesiveness, or as a psychological phenomenon to release stress,” the authors of the study wrote.
At the same time, though, some experts caution those in the corporate food chain should watch their language.
“It is a bit risky,” says Sheri Allen, director of The Workplace Specialists, a Calgary-based human resources and employment law consulting firm. It’s unrealistic to think that swearing isn’t a part of the workplace, she noted, but done without thought, it “can contribute to a poisoned work environment,” make people feel “uncomfortable” or “uneasy” about coming to work, and in the most extreme cases, can make people feel “threatened” about coming to work.
She agrees it can be a way to relieve stress, “but you really need to know who you can vent to and what is appropriate, and you have to be aware of who overhears it.”
Taking an even more stringent position, Jim O’Connor, owner of the Cuss Control Academy near Chicago, suggests that cursing at work is never a good idea. O’Connor, who offers workplace seminars to teach people how to stop swearing, says, “It’s just not about words. It’s about behavior. It’s about communication. It’s about attitude.” Swearing is “lazy language,” and a larger reflection of how casual and impatient we’ve become as a culture, he says.
Ultimately, O’Connor stresses, it’s not good for the work environment. “I agree that it can build camaraderie, but too often that means sharing complaints about management or the company. It does not foster productivity, solve problems, or settle disagreements.” Ceasing swearing, or even toning it down in both our personal and professional lives, will ultimately make us all more patient, tolerant, easy-going, and even more likeable and pleasant, O’Connor suggests.
And The Ugly
While studies like that of the University of East Anglia characterize cursing at work as a good thing, other sources suggest that cursing in the workplace can cost you your job. The Ladders.com, an online job search site for six-figure jobs, surveyed more than 2,500 executives and found that foul language is the worst breach of all office manners. Thirty-eight percent of the managers who have fired employees for violating office etiquette cited cursing as the reason for the termination.
On the firing scale, cursing ranks even higher than drinking on the job (35%) and making an excessive number of personal calls (28%), according to the informal Internet survey of its members.
Co-workers, however, are a little more forgiving than bosses, according to The Ladders.com. While 81% dislike the sounds of swearing coming from the neighboring cubicle, it’s not as bad as the worst workplace offense noted by 98% of those who responded.
And what offense would that be? None other than stealing food from the office refrigerator. Don’t you hate it when some selfish fucking bastard absconds with your tuna fish sandwich and Diet Coke.
To curse or not to curse: that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler in the office to suffer the fucks and shits and godammits of your co-workers, or to tape their mouths shuts upon their fouling of the air. (My most sincere apologies to William Shakespeare.)
While cursing at work can either build esprit de corps or get you fired, depending upon what studies you choose to embrace, what about cursing outside of work?
According to a blurb in The Week magazine a while back, if you hit your finger with a hammer, go ahead and let loose with that string of expletives. It actually will make you feel better.
Richard Stephens, a psychology professor at Keele University in the U.K., told Scientific American, “I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear.” Professor Stephens became interested in the function of profanity after hearing an earful of it from his wife while she was in labor. He wondered if it served some practical purpose.
In one experiment he conducted, participants were asked to immerse their hands in a tub of ice cold water. Those who were encouraged to curse freely were able to keep their hands in the water 40% longer than those asked to be silent or to avoid using swear words. Afterward, the foul-mouthed subjects also reported feeling less pain than their mealy-mouthed counterparts.
Cursing seems to elevate the heart rate and may, by increasing aggression levels, trigger the flight-or-fight response. Previous research shows that this response temporarily mutes the sensation of pain, so that we can respond quickly to a threat.
The most popular swear words for people in pain, Stephens found, are fuck, shit, bitch (as in “son of a…”), and bastard. For me, were I to hit my thumb with a hammer, I would be most likely to scream, “Jesus Fucking Christ!” And maybe I’d even see an image of the Virgin Mary in the blood splatter.
This is a recycled post that was originally posted in August 2009. I’m spending most of the day today flying across country for my job and will be participating in all day meetings tomorrow and Wednesday, so I might not have time for original posts. Hence, the recycle.
But what about you all? Do you curse at work? At home? Or do you always keep it clean?