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Growth Strategies

The Esquire Guy's Guide to Swearing in the Office

Magazine Contributor
Articles Editor, GQ magazine
min read

This story appears in the August 2013 issue of . Subscribe »

Disclaimer No. 1: This column will as.sume that your every professional move is not determined by a team of lawyers who are advising you that any use of profanity--especially "sexualized" profanity--could result in a lawsuit. (Although that's true. See sidebar.)

Disclaimer No. 2: The writer of this column works in an office in which profanity isn't frowned upon. Mainly because it's fun and, sometimes, funny. (For instance, there are two ways to say, "Hand me that stapler," and only one of those ways is amusing.)

Disclaimer No. 3: If you're reading this column to find out whether or not to use profanity around customers, the answer is: No [expletive deleted] way.

There are many problems with profanity. It's jarring. It's potentially offensive. It can seem a little familiar. But there are many wonderful things about profanity, too. It's jarring. It's potentially offensive. It can seem a little familiar … and unhinged … and manic. But there are times--in business and in life--when unhinged and manic are exactly what you need to be. Profanity can be useful.

But before we figure out how to utilize profanity, let's figure out why it's so powerful. According to Melissa Mohr, whose fascinating book Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing was published earlier this year, we all have profane thoughts--it's just that our brains typically knock them down before we say them. Consider the 10 to 30 percent of Tourette's syndrome patients who suffer from coprolalia, the uncontrollable utterance of obscene words. Mohr writes: "Many people have [such thoughts], but their prefrontal cortex--the executive area of their brains--is able to override them and shut them down. The current theory is that people with Tourette's syndrome have a problem in an area of the brain called the basal ganglia, which plays a role in making choices among several actions and inhibiting certain motor functions. The executive areas of their brains can fight against their limbic urges for a time … but eventually the lower brain wins."

So it's not that people with coprolalia have more profane thoughts than the rest of us; it's that they're unable to prevent them from being spoken. Profanities aren't added to our thoughts--they're there all along. When we utter a profanity, we're not adding to our language, we're simply not suppressing it.

Profanities represent honest, authentic thoughts, and hearing them is a powerful, memorable thing. As Mohr points out in her book, when Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts psychology professor Timothy Jay gave subjects a list of 36 "taboo" and "non-taboo" words, the top five the subjects recalled were from the first category.

The Good Kind
Not that many people want to go on record saying it, but there is a good kind of profanity.

Mikael Berner, co-founder and CEO of Mountain View, Calif.-based EasilyDo, an all-in-one assistant app, says of his company, "We don't have a hard and fast rule about swearing, but we do have a hard and fast rule about being respectful to others. Swearing can be used to express surprise and delight, and it can also be used to be derogatory--and if it's used in that latter fashion, it's unacceptable."

But then he told us a story about a business he had worked at in New Jersey, where his manager was adored by the employees. "He was a really good leader, and he served customers well," Berner says. "For some reason swearing was part of the culture. I don't know how they never managed to make it seem derogatory, but I never experienced it that way."

A couple of things here: If you want to see the subtle art of profanity employed with nuance, skill and a certain I-don't-know-what, look to the people of New Jersey--from its governor on down. Also, in the case of Berner's example, the reason it didn't seem derogatory is that it probably wasn't derogatory. This is the good kind of profanity. And what good profanity can uncover is, well, goodness, not badness. This is profanity spoken out of joy, excitement, comfort. Even if it's spoken out of frustration, its goal is to bring people closer and get them excited.

The test is: Are you smiling when you say it? (Even if you're not smiling on the outside, are you smiling on the inside?) Because if there's no smiling, then what you're getting involved in is menace. Menace blows.

The Bad Kind
The bad kind is very, very bad. The fact that you're using profanity is almost incidental; it's the tone of your voice that's most important--whether you sound like you're angry. If you're attempting to bluster around and freak people out, profanity is only going to accentuate the fact that you're out of control. And out of control never works. It may work in the short term to shut people down or motivate them toward an action, but in the long term things will break down. The awful residue of angry profanity isn't worth the momentary relief.

This is why most people say not to use it. Ever. Even the guy who wrote a book about it says not to do it, mainly because of the historical volatility of the words themselves. Says Jesse Sheidlower, editor of The F-Word: "The important thing is how words are used, not how they have been used historically.

Things do change over time, and things become less offensive over time, as is the case with almost everything; a term like bastard, for instance. But any racial or ethnic or religious term referring to a specific group has gotten vastly, vastly more offensive over time. If I were running a company, I would always want to take a cautious approach."

Here's a cautious approach: Don't do it. Unless.

Unless what you're saying could be made funnier, more entertaining, more memorable, more honest, more authentic. Because when profanity is used the right way, what you're granting is honesty and friendship. For your professional associates, profanity is a window into what you're actually thinking. When you're forcefully making a point via the employment of an expletive, you're bringing people closer to you and letting them in. That's a kind of gift. It's almost touching.


Key Technical Matters

Everyone has profane thoughts. It's just that most of the time, our brain's prefrontal cortex shuts them down. In our professional lives, the prefrontal cortex is working very, very hard.

When employing a string of profanities, it's best not to jump up and down, Yosemite Sam's communication approach notwithstanding.

It's OK to say frickin'. It's OK to say frackin'. It's not OK to say frickin' frackin'.

Unless of course you're talking about fracking, the process by which rock layers are fractured by pressurized liquid in order to release petroleum or gas, in which case frickin' frackin' is the funniest possible way to refer to the subject.

Dadgummit! works only if you're from the Deep South.

Curses! works only if you're from the 19th century.

"$#&*%" works only in cartoons. "Dollar sign, pound sign, ampersand, asterisk, percentage" is not an effective profanity when spoken aloud.

Either say it or don't say it. "What the F?" No. "You gotta be S-ing me." No. "When the K did you get here?" No.

(We have no idea what K stands for.)

"What the hey?" Absolutely not.

"What the H-E-double hockey sticks?" We're not even going to dignify that with a [expletive deleted] response.


But What Does the Lawyer Say?

We spoke with Michael P. Zweig, partner at the New York office of Loeb & Loeb, to find out the legal issues related to the use of profanity in the workplace. (For the record, Zweig did not, even once, say anything potentially offensive during our conversation.)

What are the possible legal issues surrounding profanity in a work environment?

You make yourself a target for future litigation if you know an individual is highly sensitized to certain types of speech, and it's repeated. If a particular individual is subjected to speech on a repeated basis [after making it] known that it is offensive to them, it could be regarded then as personal and directed at that person, as opposed to the environment in general.

We'd never do that. Mostly we just yell out profanities due to excitement.

With entrepreneurs it may be an open office environment, and someone may have a primal scream from their desk that may be disruptive or inappropriate in a particular workplace, but it would not reasonably be seen as being directed at a particular employee. If, on the other hand, you're using sexualized words, enough frequent usages of those words and behavior may be taken as sexual harassment or creation of a hostile work environment. Use common sense.

Bottom line?

Profanity need not be excised from the workplace completely.


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