(c) Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand. Contact Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand for permission to reproduce this article., Careers

Can you swear at work?

By Travor Treharne

A stint in some workplaces might make you feel like cussing like a sailor, but is it appropriate?

If you have ever attempted to swear while texting, you probably would have noticed how the auto-correct guardian always innocently suspects that “ducking” was the word you sought. 

This seems to persevere no matter how long you have your phone – as if your device suspects you have a particularly large quantity of events which involve swooping down to avoid airborne objects. 

It seems a curious state that despite its storied and lengthy history – including the likes of Shakespeare utilising and inventing several words himself – that swearing remains at best a grey area in corporate conduct. That it is something often used, but within a certain boundary. 

When then-US President Obama signed the historic and controversial healthcare bill into law in 2010, he was introduced by his VP Joe Biden. As Biden passed over to Obama, he was clearly heard saying in the President’s ear: “This is a big f**king deal!” 

While this was categorised as another “Biden blooper”, it revealed that such language, even amongst two of the most powerful people in the world, had a place. Or at least some usage. That healthcare bill, regardless of its future, was a big deal. But more than that, Biden was right. It was a big ducking deal!

Though empathy must be cautioned. Not everyone deems swearing suitable, and it can make some people feel uncomfortable. That attitude can also make people feel like swearing even more, of course. As such, a quandary is formed. 

But before we address if we can swear at work, we must first understand the premise which underpins that debate. Why do we swear in the first place? And what does it say about us?

To swear is human

“It says we’re people,” explains Michael Adams, Professor of English Language and Literature, Indiana University and author of In Praise of Profanity.

“We have good reason to believe now that profanity is in the brain, that even if it’s not necessary to language, it’s part of human language as it’s developed. 

“We can curb the impulse to swear, just as we can curb fight or flight responses, but it is part of our make-up, so when it seems useful to us, we use it, even in the workplace.”

Adams says that swearing at work occurs on at least two scales. First, workers more or less at the same level in the hierarchy swear together when they are frustrated with bosses or customers. 

“This swearing is a little risky, so it’s private and marks camaraderie among the swearing workers. 

“Second, swearing suspends the formality of conversation, if only for a moment. A boss who swears with a subordinate shares her human side and builds camaraderie, too, by temporarily discounting the hierarchy. Of course, it doesn’t last.”

Adams stresses that the key point is that there is a big difference between swearing with someone and swearing at them.

“A boss who swears at workers is abusing them. One reason businesses discourage profanity is to ensure that no one feels abused, which limits a business’ legal exposure, and that’s sensible. 

“However, non-abusive swearing still goes on in most workplaces for the usual human reasons,” Adams says.

Oh sugar

Timothy Jay from the Department of Psychology at MCLA and author of Why We Curse, says swearing is normal, so swearing in the “normal” workplace should be expected. 

“We use swearing to express our emotions so, to the extent we are permitted to express emotions in the workplace then swearing should reflect our emotional lives. 

“Of course much of the appropriateness of swearing has to be determined by the context of work, manual labour versus banking for example would have different standards,” Jay says.

However, Julie Lamberg-Burnet, founder and CEO of the Sydney School of Protocol, says in company cultures where swearing is permitted 

in the workplace, the use of it tendsto be widespread.

But while workplaces today vary in their tolerance of swearing more than they used to, this shift in standards does not apply to every industry or organisation.

“In today’s corporate environment the culture of a business that allows coarse language and condones offensive behaviour, often reflects an organisation struggling to communicate and align their people, with their business brand and values,” she says.

Lamberg-Burnet says a boss who does not swear is setting the tone and standard for the business. 

“By creating a culture where swearing is considered to be not appropriate, employees will act professionally and consistently in the environment they are operating in. 

“The standard set by the boss will naturally extend to the style and tone of business communications from face-to-face to digital channels including email and social media platforms.”

For Jay, swearing is a matter of power. Those at the top have permission or power to swear more than the “underlings”. 

“Just because the boss swears does not give permission for the underlings to swear but it does represent some type of standard setting as well as creating an example of what is permissible at the upper levels.

“The boss who does not swear probably gives the strong impression that swearing or emoting is not appropriate at work.”

Jay explains that swearing makes some people uncomfortable as swearing with strong emotions triggers an autonomic nervous system reaction and we are just built that way to react to alarming or threatening stimuli around us. 

Creative dis-curse

Not all swearing is equal. The reason that some words carry more weight than others, is due to “social learning”, says Jay.

“Nobody is born with a knowledge ofwhat swearwords mean,” he says. “We are taught that some words are more offensive than others and we see that some language will get you into trouble more so than other words.”

Adams says that when used as a weapon, profanity hurts people.

“Because so much of swearing is grounded in our discomfort with talking about sex, and some words have been used against women, we are reluctant to use them. And we should be, to the extent that they discriminate and wound, but also because their power lies in restraint.”

People sometimes worry that we swear “too much”, says Adams, and they are convinced that they hear lots of swearing all around them. 

“On average, though, the best estimates say that about 0.5% of our daily speech is profanity, so not much,” he says.

“We’re smart enough to use enough profanity to express ourselves but no more. It should be said, we’re still uncomfortable about profanity, but not like we used to be. We may be in the ‘age of profanity’ – it’s still hyper-expressive because of the former taboo, but we can actually use it pretty freely,” Adams says.

I swear, it’s true

So, do expletives have a place in the corporate world? For Jay, it depends.

“It is hard to imagine stock traders under continuous pressure who do not let off a little steam now and then. 

“Also, the people at the top of the business will exert their power and authority to swear and also to sanction others for doing the same. It isn’t fair but such is corporate structure and practice,” Jay adds.

Lamberg-Burnet is more forthright. 

“Coarse language is not appropriate in the corporate world,” she explains. “As with all aspects of everyday life, situational awareness is key to creating a culture of courtesy and respect for each other. 

“The use of coarse language in business and social settings does not take into account cultural and religious backgrounds, or the appropriate behaviour with respect to colleagues and everyone in general.”

Lamberg-Burnet says one person’s concept of coarse language can be totally inappropriate and offensive to another colleague, client or peer in the workplace.

“In today’s global environment our business success is built on relationship building. 

“Building relationships in the business context is based on how well you handle specific factors that influence relationships – actions, appearance and words. 

“Swearing or the use of foul language in the corporate world is likely to seriously diminish your personal and business brand,” Lamberg-Burnet adds.

Regardless of this, certain things in the workplace will be, to borrow the terminology of the former US VP, “a big f**king deal”. How much restraint we display in the face of this says a lot about us, regardless of which option we pick.

Trevor Trehorneis an award winning journalist and editor.