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:
- "You are stupid"
- "Don't be so dense"
- "You're being obstructive"
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":
- "I feel like you're being obstructive"
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:
- "This is a stupid situation"
- "This is a dumb way of doing it."
- "This is a mad way of delivering software"
Now, add "fuck":
- "This is a fucking stupid situation"
- "This is a dumb fucking way of doing it."
- "This is a mad way of delivering fucking software"
- "Fuck. This is fucked up"
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:
- "Come on Raj, this is fucking ridiculous"
- "Oh man, James, this is a shit storm, let's never do this again"
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:
- "Ow! The fucking thing fell on my foot!"
- "I ended up falling over. I looked like a fucking plumb."
- "I got up and did 'My Way'. I was shit."
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:
- Person A: Did anything come out of that meeting I wasn't in?
- Person B: Well, yes, there's a massive job to be done in collating the issues
- Person A: Oh God. Who got that?
- Person B: I volunteered you for it
- Person A: You fucker.
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:
- "Bugger. Excuse my French"
- "He is a shit. If you'll pardon me for saying so."
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:
- only use it with safety checks per-conversation
- only use it when you are very close in social standing to your correspondent
- only use it when the correspondent uses it first
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.
A summary of everything I'm saying is:
- direct abuse of a person, one to one is NEVER OK, it's only going to make them less effective; why would you want that ever?
- swearing elsewhere can be just emphasis and so can be highly effective and certainly more effective than not doing it - it's all about the context though;
- swearing at all will make some people who are not directly involved with you or the people around you, disrespect you and likely you will not have the time, or space, or indeed the inclination, to explain yourself to them. The further the people are from you the more likely they are to disrespect you because the less likely it is that someone will explain to them the effect of your approach.
So there we are. I hope this was at least amusing. It may be interesting even. Remember, this is (if only social) science.