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Swearing at work - a guide

Please take the title's warning seriously, I will be using swear words in this post. If you'd rather not read them but are still interested in the content here then ask me via twitter and I'll try and come up with a swearing free version.

There seems to be a bit of controversy about swearing at work in the services industry right now. I've noticed several threads on it in the consultancy I work for over the time I've been there and I've also been told that some people, who don't know me, have coloured reactions to me because of this issue.

Colleagues of mine have cited swearing effectiveness studies to me and indeed, I found one; Here it is, from the University of East Anglia, published in the Leadership and Organisational Development Journal. And here is the UEA's press release about it

What is never acceptable

If you look into this issue a fascinating fact comes out, there's a lot of research from Americans saying that swearing (or cursing, as they would say) affects teams negatively, particularly if women are considered.

Meanwhile, the UEA research, which is based on the British, suggests that swearing improves effectiveness and that gender is not an issue.

But this is where the fascinating bit is: the American research either does not mention what type of swearing, or specifically mentions swearing which is abuse. That is swearing directed at one or more persons, as in: "You fucker", "You useless Fuck", "You're shit" etc...

This UEA/British research, meanwhile, talks about swearing among the team and specifically not at individuals.

This completely chimes with my instincts. If you shout at a colleague or employee, or verbally abuse them with or without swearing, you can expect to see a drop in performance. That's obvious to me.

Examples without swearing:

These are just made even worse with swearing.

I'm going to call it out directly: it is not effective to denigrate people to their face. It affects people negatively. It does not buck them up. Other tactics might shock people out of complacency or help motivate away from very poor performance, but insults (according to my own experience and the evidence I've found) will never do that.

The delicate line to tread

I'd say these were possible to say to someone at work but only in very very rare circumstances and then, only when preceded by "I feel like":

might be acceptable ways for pointing out where people are failing, for example. These can be used to alert people, rather than shock them.

Other more detailed advice is available on this subject. It might be better to avoid swearing altogether if you have this level of problem.

The contextual subjective

But, if you don't make it about the person, swearing can more effectively identify a lack of effectiveness or bad behaviour. You just have to be careful to not attribute that to the person you are trying to change:

Now, add "fuck":

None of these is directly abusive and (in my experience) may be more effective in motivating someone to fix the problem, or at least waking them up to it, than the former, swear-less version.

I would personally suggest that swearing to express frustration with someone is also OK, because it's not directed at the subject:

It's not directly abusive, it's emphasising the imploring. It does seem that you are on stickier ground with this though and it might be easier to get wrong.

The normally safe

One of the things the UEA research is highlighting is that incidental swearing can be very effective at conveying personality and that is a really good thing. In my view, it's particularly effective when it's self-deprecating:

This is all normally OK because it's comedic. The intent is to make people laugh which gives pleasure. Comedians do this all the time. Why not have comedy at work?

The dangerous but amazing payoff

Probably the most dangerous thing you could do with swearing is also the most routine and the scheme with the highest payoff. Having said that you should never insult someone directly with or without swearing this tactic can seem lunacy.

The tactic is to insult someone directly, with probably the worst swearing you would ever use. But. Only if you really, really don't mean it.

What I'm talking about is that comedy moment when a friend becomes a close friend when you insult them, rudely, to their face:

This is a powerful bonding moment presuming you really, really don't mean it, that you are totally joking and the other person knows it.

If you're a swearer then you probably do this naturally. If you look at a swearing team, they probably do this a lot. It is very valuable bonding. I can say that I trust people who swear like this at me much more than I trust people who never do that with me.

If you're not a swearer, then this tactic would be a very difficult thing to do. Perhaps leave it till you're better at other forms of swearing. Using a less forthright word as the insult might be a way to try out this technique but the less forthright the word, the less trust is established by using it.

Why does this establish trust? Well, I don't know, but if you totally don't understand it you might be interested in what I believe. The swearer is taking a big risk by being so outrageous, a risk that is accepted as a statement of trust by the target. As the swearer you are saying "I trust you not to totally lose it over this". Hence the worse the swearing the more trust the swearer is gambling.

Context over everything

Added to all this is the question of context. Do you think you can say "fuck" to the vicar? Because you probably can't. You probably can't swear with people who you don't have any kind of relationship with. You probably can't swear with people of very different social status or position to you; your bosses boss, your Mother's friends, etc...

Problems to be aware of

So taking all this on board, are there any other problems of swearing? Well, clearly you can mistakenly offend people directly. This is pretty easy to deal with though, you can test a person's ability to handle forthright language quite easily:

If people blanch at that you can apologise again and not do it around that person.

Be aware that this might vary with the swear word. Some people will get cross about "Fuck" but not about "Shit". Almost everyone in Britain will blanch at "Cunt". It's a very difficult word to use (purely because of the context people have) and I advise you to be on very solid ground about when you're going to use it. Here are some helpful rules around this particular word:

You can also safely generalise this around workplaces. If you do the test to 1 or 2 people and they don't even blink then it's safe to assume it's a swear safe work place and you can F and Blind more freely than you could if people raise their eyebrows. Even if your test subjects say they are OK with you swearing if they visibly notice it you probably need to carry on testing.

The subtle dangers of swearing

But I'd like to highlight another, more subtle, danger of swearing and one that has absolutely happened to me. People hear that you swear a lot and they sometimes form an opinion of you based on it. It is almost always no opinion at all, or a negative opinion.

In other words, the people who think "right, he's probably a contextual, subjective swearer" don't care because why would you? it's at worst harmless and at best very effective. But the people who don't understand about contextual, subjective swearing think "oh my gosh! he's yelling swear words in people's faces all day" and that makes them think, quite naturally, that you are bad.

Summing up

A summary of everything I'm saying is:

So there we are. I hope this was at least amusing. It may be interesting even. Remember, this is (if only social) science.