I’m not afraid to swear around colleagues or even bosses at work. In fact, measured profanity is one of the few skills I feel truly confident about — I’ve considered adding it to my LinkedIn profile.
Let’s talk about your damn language at work.
Yeah, that’s right, I put a profanity right at the top of this column. And if it weren’t for the publishing standards of a newspaper that might be read by children, I would’ve used a worse one. Maybe an F-bomb, or even a Z-rocket. (The Z-rocket is a profanity I made up that’s so bad nobody even knows what it means.)
It may surprise some readers to learn that America’s most-beloved workplace advice columnist is pro-profanity. But it’s the truth.
I’m not turned off by swearing among adults. I’m not afraid to swear around colleagues or even bosses at work. In fact, measured profanity is one of the few skills I feel truly confident about — I’ve considered adding it to my LinkedIn profile.
I bring this up not to be a controversial jack&#* but to discuss whether swearing should still be considered a workplace taboo.
Polling on the subjects suggests mixed opinion, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but first let’s consider a small Minnesota concrete company that recently made headlines by implementing a “no swearing” policy.
Hancock Concrete, a west-central Minnesota company that makes concrete pipes and other construction materials, decided to improve its workplace by cleaning up the language people use. David Schmidgall, Hancock Concrete’s vice president, told the Forum News Service: “We’re trying to promote an environment in which you want your children to work.”
Personally, I don’t want to work in an environment where I would want my children to work. I like working around adults, and I think adults can swear at work as long as their words aren’t used to bully others.
There’s a difference between, “%$&#, I forgot to send that email!” and “%$&# you, why didn’t you remind me to send that email!” I expect adults to know and respect that difference. And if there are co-workers who bristle at swearing, reasonable adults should respect that without a companywide policy telling them to say “fudge” instead of the previously referenced profanity.
My intention here is not to criticize Hancock Concrete. Every company has its culture and takes steps to create the work environment that leaders desire.
Schmidgall said: “We’re not trying to tell the world not to swear, but these are our standards.”
I respect that. It’s also worth noting that Hancock Concrete has a “no jerks” policy, which I wholeheartedly applaud.
But while some still view profanity at work as coarsening our culture, I see it as the inevitable evolution of our culture and the recognition that it’s OK to be yourself on the job.
There was a time, not long ago, when I was scorned for dancing to ’80s pop hits in my cubicle. Some called it “inappropriate” and “too overtly sexual.” But now? Every day’s a dance party.
The point is, times have changed and there’s no sign we’ll be returning to more polite-mouthed mores.
A recent survey by software management company Wrike found that only 22 percent of millennials are bothered by swearing at work and 39 percent of them say it makes “conveying ideas and feelings easier.” Close to 70 percent of millennials say they swear in the office, along with 56 percent of Gen X and baby boomer executives and managers.
Close to half of Gen X and baby boomer workers say swearing feels too casual and unprofessional for work, while the same percentage of millennials say it doesn’t matter.
Other data in the survey reflect what I would expect: most don’t swear around clients or customers; much swearing happens at a person’s desk or in peer-to-peer conversations; and bosses tend to set the tone on whether it’s OK to let bad words fly.
I don’t think this genie’s going back in the bottle. So I’d argue we should all just accept that profanity isn’t quite as profane as it once was.
In fact, scientific studies have linked swearing to attributes positive in any workplace.
A team of researchers from Stanford University, the University of Cambridge, Maastricht University and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology evaluated the honesty of people who routinely use curse words and found “a consistent positive relationship between profanity and honesty.” They wrote that “profanity was associated with less lying and deception at the individual level, and with higher integrity at the society level.”
Kiss my honest %#&, profanity haters!
Another study by researchers from Marist College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts found that swearing can be a sign of greater intelligence: “Speakers who use taboo words understand their general expressive content as well as nuanced distinctions that must be drawn to use slurs appropriately. The ability to make nuanced distinctions indicates the presence of more rather than less linguistic knowledge.”
As with all things workplace or otherwise, moderation is key. If you swear constantly at work, you won’t just bother people, you’ll get tuned out.
But the days of feeling like you can’t drop an F-bomb in the office are over. Work is hard and often frustrating, and it can make you want to swear.
Don’t be afraid to say, “This $#%&ing sucks!”
That doesn’t make you crude. It makes you honest.
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at email@example.com.