Now my grandma, she hated swearing. If she watched a movie with any swear words, she’d say, “There’s absolutely no reason they have to use that kind of language¹.” ² As a kid, I couldn’t argue with her, but as an adult, I saw A Few Good Men. Jack Nicholson wouldn’t have won an academy award for his role in A Few Good Men had he not adorned his lines with such colorful and acrid language.³
There is, however, an artistry to proper swearing. I like swearing at work, and I like swearing on stage, but I’m disappointed in myself whenever my usage is vapid. I love the swearing in Pulp Fiction because its use of expletives is nearly poetic. I didn’t get on board with the swearing in The Wolf of Wall Street because its use of expletives quickly became inane.
My boss swears a lot at work by any standard, but he swears a shit-ton for a Mormon. Back before he hired me, I couldn’t reciprocate his potty mouth because he was my client and I worked for a CPA firm that was intensely conservative by any standard, but completely usual for Mormons.4
The more I worked with him, the more comfortable I got swearing at work (at his work), and the better friends we became. Eventually, he hired me away from my firm, and gave me the best – and by far the highest paying – job of my life.
Not to overstate it, but swearing at work made me totally effing rich.
Recently I was surprised and delighted to find that there are many blog posts, articles, and academic papers devoted to the topic of swearing in business settings. From them I’ve gleaned four areas where swearing is bastard hell boobies effective in the workplace.
1. Authenticity through swearing
At many, if not most, businesses, swearing is taboo. Breaking taboos is a risky, vulnerable move. Phonies avoid risk and vulnerability and adhere to expectations despite their true selves, but authentic people break norms when those norms conflict with who they truly are. If I swear in front of you at work, I implicitly communicate that I trust you, and trust is required for reciprocal authenticity.
Also, it’s generally understood that most adults employ coarse language to some degree in their private lives. Authenticity is behaving at work the same way one is assumed to behave in his or her private life. So authentic people say the same fricking thing both places.
But obviously, authenticity has to be authentic. If you never swear privately – if that’s never how you comport yourself outside of work – don’t show up at a planning meeting and say, “Check out me and my bad ass being all authentic, bitches!” People can smell posers.
2. Swearing to identify with a group, build trust, and move others
Humans are an intensely social species. As such, we have a primal need to belong to a group, and we are keenly interested in knowing who does not belong in our group. Language, clothing, and physical mannerisms are all social cues that we all pick up on – consciously or not – to identify who belongs in our tribe.
We trust people in our tribe. People who are like us belong in our tribe. Therefore, we are more trusting of people who are like us.
If there’s a group that cusses when they’re together, they may see you as an outsider because of your church mouth. However, if you join in their obscene language, they will more readily accept and trust you, and in turn, you can more easily persuade them.
But there’s a tightrope to walk here. If you employ strategic swearing simply to gain people’s trust or to make a sale, you’re kind of a dick. Don’t sacrifice authenticity (which is a component of integrity) simply to increase your effectiveness as a salesperson.
Also, realize that using coarse language around people who find it offensive is a surefire way to distance yourself from them socially and lose their business. But you probably didn’t want that type of shitty customer anyway. The type like my grandma.
3. Swearing as effective communication
Regardless of whether you cuss often, seldom or never, it’s incontrovertible that swear words are emotionally packed. In fact, a case can be made that it’s impossible, using only G-rated language, to match the emotional intensity of cursing. Choosing to communicate with language that is not safe for work is an effective way to communicate that something at work is not safe.
In the HBR Ideacast titled “The Subtleties of Strategic Swearing,” Bob Sutton declared, “There’s no way to convey [BLEEP] you with polite speech.” Similarly, there are times at work where you need to quickly and effectively communicate dire circumstances. There’s a palpable difference between telling your staff, your peers, your supervisor or a client that cash flow “must be increased immediately” versus telling them that it “must be fixed right f@%&ing now.” Not only will this effectively heighten the emotion of the message, it will also demand your audience’s attention.
An interesting corollary of swearing as effective communication is swearing to augment leadership. Swearing is an effective way to communicate anger – anger that people can feel. Bob Sutton says that showing anger or a strident response to a threat makes a leader look more legitimate. “In fact, leaders who express anger rather than sadness are judged by others as being more competent.”
Some people charge the potty-mouthed as being lazy in their choice of personal expression. That’s kind of true, but it’s a lot like saying that people who drive cars are lazy in their choice of personal transportation. Don’t automatically conflate “quick and effective” with “lazy.”
But again, there’s nuance here. If you fill every sentence with profanity, you will be unable to leverage the power of “shit.” You forfeit the ability of forbidden words to change the temperature in a room because you’ve made them impotent through overuse.
4. Swearing for Humor and to Relieve Tension
Scientists have determined that swearing helps relieve pain, decrease stress, and lower blood pressure. We’ve all been in very serious, highly stressful situations when someone deftly utilizes a swear word. It’s a release valve. The paradox is that something very inappropriate is occasionally very appropriate.
Similarly, adroit use of dirty words can be extremely funny. Don’t get me wrong. Bill Cosby, Brian Regan, and Jim Gaffigan are fantastic - and clean - comedians. Nevertheless, swearing in and of itself can be quite funny. This weekend, when you’re at church, during the sermon, just imagine your minister slipping in some well-timed curse words. Never not funny.
But again, this only works if your normal use of swearing is moderate to sparing.
Unsurprisingly, the moral of the story is moderation. On one hand, if you swear a lot at work, you should back off because you’re wasting the efficaciousness of salty language. Go a week without swearing. See what people say. Then drop a curse in a strategic conversation and marvel at its renewed impact.
On the other hand, if you’re the type of person who would never even consider swearing at work, you’re limiting your potential impact. My grandma died in 1992. I don’t remember her last words to me. But I would, if on her death bed, she leaned into me and said, “Greg, don’t be such a little shit.”
Swear at work. Leave a legacy.
1 Read that again, but this time make it sound like an old lady voice.
2 There you go.
3 He didn’t win an academy award for A Few Good Men. I’m so fetching stupid.
4 I live in Provo, Utah, where approximately 80% of the population is Mormon.
Greg was born in Akron, Ohio, in the shadow of the Firestone tire factory. He began to swim competitively when he was eight, swimming for the Mountlake Terrace Lemmings. He graduated in 1995 from the University of Washington with a math degree. He chose math for the ladies. After serving ten-years as an 8th grade math teacher, he decided it was time for a career change, mainly because he “couldn’t stand those little bastards.” He began his accounting career with a local CPA firm in Orem, Utah, where he consistently failed the QuickBooks ProAdvisor advanced certification exam. Greg currently works as the Controller for the Utah Valley Physicians Plaza. He lives in Provo, Utah, with his wife and two kids. He enjoys eating maple bars, drinking Diet Pepsi, and swearing.