Swearing in the workplace: Why the F#@% did you say that?

I work with a number of different businesses in any given week so I see different office cultures. In some offices there is a lot of jargon — knowing the “code words” means you are an insider. In other offices (many times software companies) the vibe is silence — everyone has headphones on and the office is dead quiet. Other business cultures have a lot of swearing — where it’s totally normal, and maybe even expected, for everyone to swear like sailors. Men, women, young, old, bosses and junior staffers — they are equal opportunity cursers. Hardly a sentence goes by without an expletive.

The use of profanity (or lack of use) is something we observe quickly when we start with a business. We are all grown ups, none of these words are shocking or unfamiliar; if someone doesn’t want to hear them they could object and I assume folks would tone it down. But like dress code or work ethic, use of profanity is a way to indicate you are “one of us”.

This kind of rampant swearing isn’t present in every business I work with; I’m guessing it’s fifty-fifty. In one half swearing is common and in the other half it’s uncommon. For those in which it’s uncommon, I assume that’s a cultural choice, but perhaps it was just something that never got started.

Still, I wonder what all the swearing is about.
When I hear people who are “F-ing this” and “G-D that” and “this is bullsh-t,” in every sentence it kind of loses its impact. For me it turns into a kind of verbal litter, cluttering up the communication. Other times, usually when people use the word F-ck, I’m kind of thrown off. I don’t want to f-ck you — I don’t want to see you get f-ed. It’s all very raw and violent, not to mention what it must sound or feel like to someone who’s been the victim of sexual violence.

I know that some folks would say they are just expressing themselves and that they are being more “honest” about how they feel. But I suspect they don’t talk that way with their kids (and I hope they are honest with them) and they don’t talk that way to a judge, or someone else that they have a lot of respect for. Do they?

One of my colleagues had an interesting perspective. If you met one of your mentors, someone older and wiser, would you swear when you were talking to them? When you become that older and wiser mentor, will you still be swearing?

If not swearing is a sign of respect, and swearing is an indicator that you are an “insider”, does that imply that we don’t respect our team members? I realize we want to be casual with one another — but does that casual atmosphere come with a cost of respect and professionalism?

All I know is that things have changed since I entered the workforce. These days, employees can freely display their tattoos and piercings, wear jeans and flip flops, and apparently swear too — that wasn’t the case 25 years ago.

Maybe things need to change — or maybe I just need to get over it. What do you think?

What’s your company culture like? Do you swear a lot, a little or not at all?


  1. I appreciated this post, Brad. The culture has been dumbed. Swear words are negative words; regardless of how acceptable it is. It brings down the motivation and professionalism of an individual or an organization and they don’t even realize it.

    Your colleague had it spot on when they asked if those who like to cuss would be doing it in front of their older, wiser mentors.. of course not. Why not?…exactly.

    If I hear a client or vendor swear freely, especially during an initial meeting; statistically speaking, the success of those relationships doesn’t continue.

    Again… appreciated the post.

  2. I also appreciated this post. The culture has been dumbed. Swear words are negative words; regardless of how acceptable it is…

  3. Jacob & Rohit;

    Thanks for your comments — I quite honestly expected more comments from the other point of view!

    I understand where people want a more casual culture, that’s fine. I’m not sure that for me it’s a judgment about smart vs. dumb as much as it is disrespectful vs. respectful.

    I agree that they are negative words, at least that’s how I feel about them. I have a hard time understanding how they contribute to a positive workplace culture.

  4. There are many powerful ways to make a strong point and express an emotion without swearing. On the other hand, it may depend on the audience, context and message. Would Eddie Murphy still be Eddie Murphy without being irreverent? Some may say Eddie stopped being funny when he started making children’s movies. However in a professional setting it’s best to be safe than sorry.

    • Eddie Murphy’s stand up was filthy! It’s hard to believe that it’s the same guy who’s making Daddy Daycare, right.

      I don’t think that we need to say there’s *never* a time for swearing — I’m just wondering what’s gained and what’s lost.

      Thanks for commenting.

  5. Enjoyed the example of swearing to a mentor as an illustration of whether swearing is correct or incorrect. That was much like would you swear in front of your grandmother? I find those who swear lack the breath and depth of the English language not to mention some just general business or personal ethics along with a lack of emotional intelligence.

    Again, as I am older, I do not find it acceptable in the workplace. Yes we all become upset. I can count more than one time going to the restroom and letting out a few swear words to release some negative emotions after having to deal with an unreasonable customer or even employee.

    There is an old expression about “Never let them see you sweat.” I believe that rings true for “never let them hear you swear” because now the other person or persons realizes where your emotional button or buttons are.

    Leanne Hoagland-Smith

    • Leanne;

      Thanks for your comment. I agree that we don’t need to show folks where our buttons are. I like the idea of excusing myself to get the emotion out in the restroom!

      I also think that we can be transparent and still be professional If we’ve got strong passion or emotion for an issue — I want people to hear that. For some people that may mean using a broader array of vocabulary than for others.

  6. Andy Crestodina says:

    Swear words as communication tools, just like anything else. But they’re powerful so they should be used sparingly. Use them to much, and they lose value and you sound vulgar.

    A lot of speakers use them effectively as a sort of downbeat. I gave a presentation recently and my last slide had three huge words on it: “DO EPIC SHIT” and people loved it. (full credit to Charlie Gilkey for this little jewel of profound profanity)

    So I say, swear away! But do so with intent and knowledge that an F-bomb, like any type of explosive, should be used cautiously…

    • Andy;

      You summed it up for me. “F-bomb, like any type of explosive, should be used cautiously…” Fling them around, using them as every part of speech and they lose their impact (and you lose your influence).

  7. Myles Dannhausen says:

    I spent a decade of my formative years in the kitchen and behind the bar, so swearing became something I couldn’t avoid, and frankly, I’ve never worried too much about it. You’re right that picking your spots is ideal to make the use of those words more powerful, which I, admittedly, don’t do enough of.

    My conversation – whether as a high school basketball coach, around family, or in conversations with article subjects as a reporter – has always had an ample sprinkling of F-bombs. I find, ironically, that it puts people at ease – it makes you real, and as a journalist your subjects need to trust you. That can help. And if you mis-read your audience, it gives you an opportunity to apologize, which holds its own power.

    As a coach, you might think it would cost respect, but I never experienced that. At the end of the day, I didn’t really care about how my players did on the court, but whether they trusted me to come to me with the real issues in their lives. And the more real and approachable I was, the more likely it was my players would trust me with what really mattered.

    I cringe at industry jargon and cliche (it’s why I struggle reading Rick Reilly), and honestly, it’s really difficult for me to fully trust someone who always keeps it buttoned up. When I’m judging a mentor, their manner of speaking – whether we’re talking F-bombs, articulation, or grammar – is of little importance to me. And as a mentor to others, I hope my value is great enough that my words and language are overshadowed by my actions and the meaning behind those words.

    • Myles;

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I appreciate it!

      I can see where the occasional swear word can build a connection and keep things real. I think the profanity I was thinking of in this article is more of the type you experienced in the kitchen. Where it was a main course of conversation as opposed to being added for extra spice!

      I also think that in the workplace (especially one where you are the boss) there are some added dangers — but much of our lives are not spent in the workplace and there we can be more free with our speech.

      Still, I wonder if it’s true that you don’t pay attention to a mentor’s manner of speaking. We say we don’t judge people by their looks — but we’ve elected the taller candidate as president in every election in the TV era. I think we don’t want to believe that we judge people based on their words — but I’m sure we actually do.

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