Surprise! No Need to Stop Cursing Completely. But Try It This Way Instead

[Please note: Some examples of profanity are used in this piece.]

Have you ever worked in a place where people swear a lot? Sometimes a senior leader has a habit of profanity, or it could just be the way everyone talks in a particular department. Questions about the impact and appropriateness of cursing came up recently with two of my clients. In one case, a high-performing middle manager was concerned that her style of speaking was slowing her rise; in the other case, cursing was prevalent throughout the organization but particularly noticeable at the top and among leadership wannabees.

Profanity can be considered a form of transgression or a sign of authenticity, or it can simply be seen as rude and inappropriate. Let your workplace norms guide your behavior, but also be sure to evaluate how effective those norms are.

What Other People Hear When You Swear

People who don’t use profanity really notice when other people do. It can be frightening to hear leaders swear, whether they do so indiscriminately or only when they’re angry. It’s one thing for an employee to report, “Yikes, I work for such a tough boss!” but it really creates a negative impression if they say, “My boss swears all the time. I can’t tell if they’re actually mad at me.” Most listeners would respond, “You shouldn’t have to put up with that.” And it’s not okay to excuse someone’s swearing as being “just part of who they are.” 

When you curse in the workplace, your colleagues may perceive anger you don’t mean. They could also see you as intimidating, crass, or crude, or they could decide you’re not in control of yourself. They might even assume you’re uneducated. And if you swear a lot, people are more likely to view you as generally negative. For many employees, cursing creates a hostile environment, and it can increase team negativity and encourage people to consider leaving. It’s also important to keep in mind that some people have religious objections to curse words that take a god-name in vain or refer to divine punishments.

Plus, more circumspect senior leaders could judge you as immature for swearing. That was the concern of the manager who met with me: she’s looking for promotion and realizes that she might not be considered as stable or mature as other leadership candidates because she swears.

Why People Curse at Work, and How to Change That Habit 

Some people use profanity as a kind of placeholder—it’s their way to express their immediate reaction to a situation while they’re figuring out what they really want to say; other people say, “Oh, shit” to acknowledge anything from news of a crisis to their coffee getting cold. 

But you can find a different placeholder. Here’s something to try: Nod to acknowledge your awareness of a comment or situation, rather than swearing. Or say something innocuous like “wow” or “huh” or “whoa.” You can use the sounding-out expressively to indicate different kinds of reaction. “Hey!” can be said quickly and loudly or you can draw it out to show a kind of thoughtful surprise or concern, as in “Heeyyyyy.” A wordless approach would be to facepalm to demonstrate that you can’t believe what you just heard.

Habitual cursing often expresses resentment or annoyance without actually defining the problem, so pay attention to what you curse about frequently and see what needs to be changed in addition to the language. When someone says, “Oh, those f***ing people in the ABC Department!” it’s a way to commune with listeners about the problem without naming it accurately or trying to fix it. 

Shifting to more descriptive language makes your concerns more understandable and your conversation more interesting. For instance, there are many illustrative words you could substitute for “f***ing”—like “annoying,” “irresponsible,” or “error-prone,” for starters. 

When you use cursing as vague blanket language, it reinforces the impression that the folks in the ABC Department are “the other” in a negative, permanent way. You’re essentially saying: “We don’t like them and we agree that they’re hopeless and not worth engaging with in a meaningful way.” A more effective construction might be, “I’m so exasperated! They keep ignoring our instructions. We need to change the process.”

Profanity Can Also Be Useful 

It’s true that casual profanity can provide a quick way to blow off steam and increase feelings of bonding. This was a significant part of the impetus for the client organization where swearing has been an all-day, everyday occurrence. Profanity became a demonstration of the leadership team’s closeness and authenticity—unfortunately, while some people outside the leadership team came to believe that cursing was normal and aspirational leadership behavior, others were taken aback by it and felt uncomfortable all the time. Foul language becomes habitual, so it’s hard to keep it located only within a so-called “safe” group and be confident that everyone there really does feel safe.

On the other hand, occasional use of profanity for emphasis can be extremely effective. Using an expletive when you’re really surprised by something may strike just the right note of amazement and grab your team’s attention. But there shouldn’t be things happening every day that shock you enough to curse.

When my rising-manager client became really frustrated after multiple incidents of the same problem, we agreed that it could be perfectly appropriate for her to say, “We need to cut this shit out” so long as she didn’t say it in an irate or rageful way, and if she followed it up with a concrete explanation of what was wrong, what needed to change, and what she expected instead.

Nonetheless, if you’ve never heard your teammates swear, there’s really no need to curse around them, and you might consider trying not to do it. Sometimes it’s best to speak slightly more formally at work than you do in your personal life because there is a priority in the workplace for clear, actionable language and often less opportunity for repair—and it may also be better for the other people around you.

Onward and upward—

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