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Profanity is, sometimes, acceptable in the workplace

While usually inappropriate, swearing can have its place

By Brian Kreissl

My six year-old daughter is at the stage where she literally repeats everything she hears. Because of that, my wife and I have to make a concerted effort to watch our language.

That can actually be really hard to do — with the result my daughter does hear us utter the occasional bad word. And she sometimes repeats the words we use so, as parents, we’re in the unenviable position of saying: “Do as we say, not as we do.”

That’s definitely not a way to set a good example for your children, but it’s difficult for many people to refrain from swearing for an extended period of time — especially during an emotional argument when things are said in the heat of the moment. To me, that’s because swearing has become such a large part of our culture it can be difficult to communicate without using profanity, especially in certain situations.

While many people would argue swearing demonstrates a certain lack of vocabulary — or is yet another symptom of the declining standards of decorum and civility in society — I personally believe the occasional swearword can have its place, even in the workplace.

Swearing in the workplace

I’ve personally been known to utter the occasional four letter word at work. While I realize some people wouldn’t find that appropriate, I’m always careful to try not to offend those around me.

For example, I always direct profanity at situations rather than individuals. And I do use profanity at times for effect — but only when I know those around me won’t be offended or think less of me for doing so. I certainly wouldn’t swear in front of customers or in an important business meeting with senior executives or people I hardly knew.

Nevertheless, certain situations simply call for a swearword. Saying “We’re going to be in serious trouble” just doesn’t have same ring to it as “The s*** is going to hit the fan.” Used right, a four letter word can really add emphasis to certain conversations — especially if the person using that word isn’t known to use profanity on a regular basis.

According to research at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, swearing in a non-abusive manner among work colleagues can help build relationships and manage stress. It can also help foster teambuilding by enhancing cohesion among teammates.

Using a swearword in an appropriate context can actually make a speaker more persuasive and appear more “human.” In fact, one study conducted by Cory Scherer and Brad Sagarin of Northern Illinois University found “obscenity could impact credibility positively because the use of obscenity could make a credible speaker appear more human.”

Limits on profanity in the workplace

On the other hand, using profanity as a tool to facilitate communications and teambuilding in the workplace definitely has its limits. As mentioned, profanity is almost never a good idea in front of customers or clients (such as the news anchor who was recently fired for swearing on air during his very first day on the job).

And swearing is generally taboo when it comes to senior executives.

Profanity also has to be used sparingly, and should never be used in an insulting, derogatory or offensive manner. And certain words should definitely be off limits, especially when used in a sexist, racist, homophobic or blasphemous context.

It’s also important to consider the audience and the culture of the organization in question. For example, organizations with highly conservative cultures would likely frown upon any use of profanity whatsoever. And highly religious or sensitive people may find profanity particularly objectionable.

But given that profanity is so prevalent these days — and given the fact that using a carefully chosen swearword could have a positive impact on the workplace — in many situations, muttering the occasional four letter word under one’s breath at work isn’t nearly the same abomination it once was.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com.   

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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