Should You Swear at Work?

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 17th January 2017

Here’s a tricky discussion that can probably split any room. It goes to the heart of personal values, as well as the culture of an organisation.

Generational norms come into play here, as well as a dash of religious doctrine, and attitudes about gender difference. Quite a lot to think about for such an ostensibly simple issue.

Swearing in everyday life

If you ignore for a moment the shock-value swearing can still trigger (try searching for reactions to the Bill Grundy TV interview with the Sex Pistols back in 1976 – but be prepared), underneath it all, they’re just words. Just a collection of symbols arranged in a particular sequence to impart meaning.


Does it really matter what order the letters are arranged in? Why is it that the word ‘this’ can be arranged into an anagram and suddenly be offensive? Clearly, this isn’t based on simple or rational logic.

You won’t need to watch any TV programme after 9pm, or movie rated anything other than PG, for long before you find that some level of swearing can apparently be considered normal.

Most ten year-olds today have probably encountered – at school, through friends, or on the web – many words that would have given my mother palpitations. Most probably use a range of them in normal conversation while talking among themselves.

Surely, then, it’s simple. Isn’t swearing accepted normal behaviour? Well, no. It isn’t that simple. Especially in the workplace.

Swearing in the workplace

When I was at school back in the 1960s, my friends and I thought we had invented swear words and used them as if they were our own secret language… in contrast to today’s youth, I remember being stunned the first time I actually heard an adult use ‘the f word’.

My grandfather would have been disciplined at school or work for saying ‘damn’, especially ‘in front of a lady’. It’s clear to anyone with eyes and ears that social norms change, and the rules of everyday interaction evolve over time.

But we have to understand that norms are specific to context. At work, whatever the societal circumstances or lexicological considerations, it ultimately comes down to this…. try to avoid offending your colleagues. I’m sure we can all agree that offending people at work causes unnecessary unrest, and really isn’t conducive to high performance.

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Adapting to your environment

It’s all about tribes. Any tribe – and your organisation, team, or corner of the office are in many ways a tribe – has its own rules of engagement, and even its own vocabulary.

The behavioural norms in your work tribe aren’t just a result of the people who are part of it, but also of the professional context. For example, the rules (both formal and unspoken) will be very different in a factory and a salon. Factors from employee demographics to whether or not there is direct interaction with the public will decide what’s expected in your tribe.

In the example of a factory versus a salon, gender undeniably enters the mix, as it does in many cases. For centuries, men have been taught that certain behaviours aren’t appropriate in front of the opposite sex. Swearing is a notable example of what has been considered inappropriate ‘in front of a lady’.

Today, this is perhaps something of an anachronism. I have heard things emerge from groups of young women talking socially that would have been unheard of a few decades ago. And it is often men who are offended or who react ‘on behalf of’ women… an interesting example of a stereotypical assumption that still appears to be acceptable!

Age is another key factor. With their exposure to increasingly graphic material on the internet, in film and on TV, it is likely that those under 25 will think of many ‘profanities’ as perfectly acceptable in. As we’ve seen, members of older generations might not be as au fait with casual cursing.

All of this makes for an interesting challenge for management in today’s eclectic working environments, where norms may be the result of huge numbers of variables. And if you do manage others, it’s just as (if not more) important for you to adapt to the expectations of your workplace tribe. You might be authorised to make formal demands of team members, but you’ll have to comply with some of their unspoken rules if you want real engagement. It might even be a way of building friendly, cohesive relationships.

Lastly, while it’s important for those who love a bit of effing and blinding to hold back when the situation calls for it, it’s also wise to avoid being oversensitive; your disapproval could be just as offensive to some as their swearing is to you. If you find yourself in the kind of tribe that swears more than you’d like, remember that in the end, they’re just words; if they’re not being used in an abusive way, perhaps it’s time we just learned to be a bit more mature about it. Swearers, don’t offend people. And listeners, don’t over-react.

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