Is it OK to Swear at Work?

In what is undoubtedly one of the oddest juxtapositions, concurrent with all the “political correctness,” has been the growing acceptance of profanity in everyday conversation.

Swearing is Everywhere

TV and Radio, with subscription services pushing the boundaries of what is “acceptable,” has wrought greater latitude for informal language in the public networks. This past year we saw the “F-Bomb” come to basic cable. The FX series, “The People vs. OJ Simpson,” brought cursing to the masses. The blowback? That show went on to win several awards, including the Emmy and Golden Globe for best-limited series.
As a result, what’s currently allowable by the FCC? According to the Washington Post, “It is complicated.”

Swearing in Business

What about business? I thought the business arena provided a safe harbor for language free from profanity in the professional environment.
The wheels have come off that cart as salty language has crept even into investor calls by top executives (at top companies).
Furthermore, another sign of this relaxed attitude toward language and lack of restraint is found in some recent business-book best-selling titles:

  • The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson
  • You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life by Jen Sincero
  • Unfu*K Yourself: Get Out of Your Head and Into Your Life by Gary John Bishop
  • How to Make Sh*t Happen: Make More Money, Get in Better Shape, Create Epic Relationships and Control Your Life by Sean Whalen
  • I Call BullSh*t: Live Your Life, and Not Someone Else’s by Josh Miller

Admittedly those book titles are attention-grabbing and, perhaps, even cute. But they are undeniably crude.
I also understand there are cases where the “bad” word is entirely on point. If we believe a recent Scientific American article, the occasional use of swear words is a sign of higher fluency. I am sure this would be the case if I were to curse at work.
So, I get it. Like with TV and Radio, the issue of swear words and business is complicated.

Accommodation Theory

Dusting off the cobwebs of my graduate education and further complicating the issue, I recall Howie Giles’s “Communication Accommodation Theory.” This is when people talking to one another adopt similar communication styles. These styles are more attuned to each other and are typically not native to each communicator.
An example is when someone starts dropping “F-bombs” in their conversation. It is not unusual for the other party to join in on the swearing party. Suddenly, they fall a few “F-bombs” themselves. It is an almost unconscious reaction.
The point is that forces at work make this a slippery slope and a challenge to curtail.

The Brand That Swears!

I advocate that from a branding perspective, both corporate and personal, it is probably better to raise the language bar, not lower it. Clean talk is, after all, the professional way to talk. Why is the employee (or company) known for their potty mouth?

Take Action

I am suggesting immediately start paying close attention to the language you use at work. Elevate your communication consciousness. If you see a conversation become blue, pause for a moment, then substitute the swear word for one more professional. As a result, the other party will subconsciously accommodate your conversational style. Most of all, they will stop swearing themselves without even knowing it.
In short order, you will raise your brand. And, most noteworthy, you will boost the brand of those around you.

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