I Swear, It’s All Business – Ethics of Cursing At Work

I Swear, It’s All Business – Ethics of Cursing At Work

Swearing at work has become a hot topic lately. After all, the power of words can be significant, but they’re just words, right? But what about the unintended consequences of accepting coarse language as a norm — both for the office, and our vocabulary entirely? Like racial epithets, it’s not really the words themselves that are the problem; it’s what’s associated with them, the context, who’s listening, and the habits we’re forming. Some may think of the F-word as just a word, but some of our customers may have a different feeling about it, and with more people addressing the extreme negativity and over-done snark in our modern day, what impact does regular swearing have on our environment?

The Impracticality of Foul Language

It seems most opposition to foul language is from a moralistic approach, but what about the practical side of being well-spoken? With many accepting swear words and their dorky substitutes (“what the heck?” “WTF”) as common lingo, many in our society — including some business prospects — still find common vulgarity foreign and offensive, or just unprofessional. While some esteemed friends of mine are pushing for the devaluing of the F-word for greater expression, many affluent businesses are starting to address the heavy proliferation of cursing in the workplace and its affect on their diverse employee base and customers.

Yeah, But Swearing FEELS Good

Sure, in some speaking engagements and literary works, occasional swearing can spice up the flow, but in most cases, what are we REALLY gaining from swearing? Think about it — you’re at work, and a coworker has a software glitch and yells out, “What the f***?!” How did the employee, you, or anyone else gain from this? Further, what about that prospective client who just walked by with the CEO, unbeknownst to the swearing employee? This is not only an issue of language, but of self-control and awareness. People don’t need to hear outbursts, nor does the language need to be crass, and this is a great common example of swearing’s uselessness. A post from Robby Slaughter recently addressed cursing in the workplace, and his emphasis was on reducing workplace stress to keep employees from cursing. While I agree workplace stress should be minimized, someone who doesn’t regularly curse won’t likely use inappropriate language when stressed. It’s not a part of who they are. It would be one thing if there was something to gain from either coarse language or outbursts, but there really isn’t. There are better ways to handle stress. Further, Robby references an article that claims swearing may be good for you. Again, if swearing or outbursts aren’t akin to how one reacts to stress, it won’t likely be beneficial or natural.

Clean Up That F****** Grammar

For us grammar geeks who like ridding ourselves of superfluous words, see the following line:

“Get the f*** out of here! That game was f****** awesome!”

Better: “Get out of here! That game was awesome!”

Best: “That game was awesome!”

So much cleaner, grammatically, and you could say it to your kid, your grandmother, your buddies, or in a good convo with a prospective client, and no one would ever notice the missing f-bombs. This isn’t about being prudish, but about a pragmatic and simplistic approach — a mindful way of speaking, and an easier way to do things.

The Slip and Slide of Speaking Poorly

A slip of the tongue can be hilarious with the right people, but it can be disastrous in the wrong context. We know we don’t want to curse around kids, the elderly, business prospects, or those who find it generally offensive, so why make it part of our culture? To be cool or accepted? We are creatures of habit, and since we project different personas with different people, why further complicate things with “clean” and “dirty” sides? We talk about being real and transparent. Cleaning up our speech makes us more “real” to everyone. Some believe it to be liberating to dispel the power of foul language. I feel there’s more liberation in not having to watch our mouths around so many. When bad habits are cast aside, we have less to worry about.

As we work to improve our speaking and writing skills — cleaning up the language is a great addition. I ask — is there ANY value to regular cursing and bad habit-forming? I’ve known a few people to give it up… they don’t miss it.

By |2018-10-17T12:12:31+00:00July 2nd, 2012|Human Resources, Sales & Marketing|

About the Author:

Josh Humble is a photographer and occasional writer for TKO Graphix, and he has a passion for light, composition, and HDR photography — as well as typography and grammar. He's also a blogger, and he photographs headshots for Central Indiana businesses. Find him on Twitter, Google Plus, and LinkedIn. - See more at: http://blog.tkographix.com/author/joshhumble/#sthash.vr0HQWxw.dpuf


  1. robbyslaughter July 2, 2012 at 2:44 pm

    Thanks for the reference and the thoughts!

  2. Josh Humble July 2, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    And thank you, Robby, for your always insightful views!

  3. JR Renkenberger July 3, 2012 at 3:36 pm

    In my experience, cursing has never made a person seem more intelligent or capable. We’re human, so emotional outburst will happen from time to time. While I feel that cursing should be discouraged in any professional setting, I can’t imagine having a “zero tolerance” policy.

    I appreciate this article, and the referenced Robby Slaughter post as well. Nice job, sirs.

  4. Josh Humble July 3, 2012 at 4:55 pm

    Thanks for your thoughts, JR! Zero tolerance might depend on the environment, customer base, and, perhaps, certain words, but I’m hoping to address our personal thoughts on what we feel acceptable. That’s the best way to resolve it. We know we can’t use racial slurs at work, and while they have a much greater impact on most than the F-word, it’s still a sensitivity issue. While in common usage now, we shouldn’t forget, the F-word has crude origins, and many still take that seriously.

    You’re definitely right – people do make mistakes, and I’ve made mine. While I’m not a potty mouth, I mess up sometimes, like anyone, and these are just thoughts I’ve developed while observing the big push for the F-word validation. I’ve questioned the hype, and wondered why we really need to make it officially ok, when in MOST contexts (there can be exceptions), there’s nothing to gain by it, and perhaps, a lot of unintended consequences.

  5. Rob Kolpien July 6, 2012 at 10:46 am

    Great article!  As a father of two young children, they are coming of age and hearing vulgar language in their world.  Our approach has always been to tell them that it shows laziness and a lack of intelligence to use those kinds of words, and that they should always try to think of different, more intelligent words to express their feelings.

    I imagine it is the same in the work place.

  6. Josh Humble July 6, 2012 at 2:53 pm

    Thanks, Rob! Although my post addresses more of our workplace conduct, I’m speaking more about our habits, as they are the core of it. I don’t rule out the occasional use for certain contexts, nor do I look down upon people who feel differently. I’m just hoping we can all examine the unintended consequences of making foul language a thoughtless reaction, or part of our regular speech; it avoids a lot of issues. Also, with so many great resources advising us on how to write and speak better, why not address foul language, as well?

    Having children, especially, causes us to look at this differently. A healthier culture allows for healthier children.

  7. amrecker July 25, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    I think you have to know your audience and what kind of rapport you have with them. While I agree that cussing can be wildly inappropriate in the workplace, it’s not the most awful thing in the world within the right context. I have a great relationship with one of our board members and we have a friendly fundraising competition going on- we often say “You are going down. I am going to kick your ass.” It’s all in fun. It’s the way we communicate. It suggests a familiarity that allows us to work together better.

    I am not a fan of sweeping generalizations or black and white rules when it comes to relationships- even in the workplace. Just know your audience. 

  8. Josh Humble July 26, 2012 at 9:19 am

    Thank you for your comment, Amber. I agree we need to be aware of whom we’re speaking with. You can’t get away with being clean in a few scenarios where blending is a must. I would also contend, however, that kind of blending is not necessary for most. My big concern is making it a mindless habit, or speaking without thought. Who we are by habit is what’s reflected in our work life. A great example of this is when we’re in public, and someone is mindlessly popping off profanities in front of kids, elderly, and whoever else. If you were to look at them funny, they would likely tell you to f*** off. It’s too common and ridiculous. 

    I know a military man who’s no stranger to the roughest language; it’s what you do in some scenarios. But being a teacher of mine, if someone under his tutelage was caught swearing while training in front of guests, they were going to pay for it. It was about being a gentleman, and knowing we don’t always know who’s around. My general solution is to not make it habit. 

    Of course, I’m not totally clean – most people aren’t, but these are just realizations I’ve made over time, especially with the push by some to make it common speak. I’m only suggesting we look at it differently. Question everything.

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