Swearing at Work: Yea or Nay?

swearing at workHere’s a fun question for today: are you for or against swearing at work? Do you think less of colleagues and bosses who do it — or does context matter (e.g., you’re only against it if someone is swearing out of anger or swearing around little kids (or older colleagues)?) Or does your vocabulary rival a sailor’s? Do you consider it a measure of closeness, of “being in the club”? (Does anyone do it to prove their mettle — I’m thinking of the characters from the video for parody video Bitch in Business.) What about crass sayings that aren’t quite swearing, such as “oh, he’s just swinging his dick around” — yea or nay? (Haha: any favorite phrases to share?)

I can’t find the post now, but I know we’ve talked about this as a facet of gender relations in the office — in the past, I’d gotten the sense that male lawyers I worked with were deliberately toning their language down when I was around — whether it was because I was junior, a woman, or if there was something about me personally I can’t say. My solution was often to be the first to casually swear in front of them — but looking back maybe I made too much out of it.

In general, I like to joke that I was a sailor in a previous life, because my language — with good friends, at least — tends to be on the saltier side when kids aren’t around. That said, I’ve always felt that in writing (such as this blog) that swearing is the “lazy” way — there’s almost always a better word or metaphor that can be used if you take half a second to think about it. I tend to take that approach in most interactions with adults who I don’t know well, especially since I’ve toned my language down enough around my kids to reflexively say “sugar/fudge/darn it” rather than their other versions. (Interesting side question: is saying “sugar/fudge/darn it” at work equally off limits — the equivalent of bringing in homemade cupcakes to the office or some other office mom behavior?) In terms of swearing out of anger, I think there’s a difference between screaming at the universe (“fuuuuuck!”) or using it as an adjective (you’ve got to be f-ing joking) versus screaming it at a person (e.g., you f-ing asshole / get me the f-ing book) — and I think even the screamers I worked with would recognize that difference.

How about you, readers — are you for or against swearing at work? If you’re against swearing at work, do you view it as politeness, laziness, or something else? And if you’re for swearing at work do you view it as being a member of the club, being an adult — or something else?

Stock photo: Deposit Photos / RobStark.swearing at work - yea or nay

Career women discuss the surprising pros and cons of swearing at work -- and it's fascinating to see which commenters say they absolutely love swearing or see it as a "member of the club" type of thing versus the women who say NO, never. But as it turns out: EVERYONE hates when men "apologize" for swearing. Oh, our delicate @#$@# ears...

Comments

  1. Anonymous :

    During normal hours, when people are human and interactions are reasonable, I use the occasional mild curse at work.

    Anytime I find myself working a 60+ hour workweek because somebody else couldn’t be bothered to do their job online, I sound like a 13 year old boy on X-box live, just muttering four letter words to myself as I angrily plod away at a job I don’t even know if I like anymore.

    …Although I did once (in not my finest hour) when somebody was patronizing me and totally mansplaining a situation in which I was the expert, use a phrase that involved a suggestion that they could go and acquire a bag of male organs then staple that on the white board in lieu of a presentation if they thought it needed to be ‘ballsier’.

  2. In today’s climate, I think ““oh, he’s just swinging his dick around” is far, far worse than any four-letter word.

    I don’t mind limited swearing at work. I DO mind when a man swears and then apologies to the ladies.

    Saying a replacement swear word like “sugar” or “shoot” or “fudge” would definitely be the cause of teasing in my office. Either just swear or use “regular” vocabulary, not cutesy replacements.

    • Never too many shoes... :

      Please, for the love of all that is good and right, do not use words like “fudge” and “sugar”. I am literally cringing as I type.

    • +1000
      Most of my colleagues swear casually (as in, not directed toward individuals and not in meetings). So do I, though I’m really working to tone down my use of the f word because…new baby. Other people swearing doesn’t bother me. New guy at work swears awkwardly (as if he’s trying to work it into conversation) then makes a HUGE deal about apologising for swearing in front of me. It makes me livid. One day, when our boss (who DOES mind swearing) was out, he actually walked around our area polling people: “Who does it bother when I say the f word?” Wow dude. We literally all use it, just not around you because you’re awkward AF.

    • Rainbow Hair :

      I HATE IT WHEN PEOPLE APOLOGIZE FOR SWEARING IN FRONT OF ME.

      I may be a delicate flower in some ways, but trust me that wasn’t the first F-bomb I heard.

      • Rainbow Hair :

        I guess it’s a little funny that I’m much more likely to get upset at the apology for the swearing than at the swearing itself…

      • +1000. I always say, “trust me I’ve heard worse.” But I like your response better.

      • Brunchaholic :

        THIS.

        1) If you were sorry about swearing in front of me, you wouldn’t have sworn in front of me to begin with.
        2) The fact that this used to happen to me routinely when I worked in the South and now that I’ve moved back home up North it literally has yet to happen to me is not lost on me.

        I remember routinely being on conference calls (along with a female partner) with attorneys and clients and men using mild profanity and then issuing blanket apologies “for all of the ladies present.” It always felt intentional.

  3. Anonymous :

    I have tried to tone it down as I have gotten more senior, but words definitely creep in, especially if I am tired.

    I will use “effing”, and if something does slip, I might say “excuse the language.” Again, all bets are off as exhaustion sets in.

  4. I swear at work to describe situations, but never people. I’ll call a situation f*cked when warranted, but I would never call someone a b*tch or a d*ckhead in a work setting.

    • Anonymous :

      Same.

    • Yes this is my distinction as well. I will curse a f***ing spreadsheet all day long, but I will never call a person even something as mild as dork.

      My pet peeve is when a man apologizes for his “language” to me. I always answer “Oh if that’s the worst you’ve got, you probably don’t want to stick around me. I make sailors blush.” In reality I’m not a horrible swearer, but the idea of being a sensitive lady with sensitive lady ears (or being lumped in with young kids) just makes me want to shout in his face.

    • Rainbow Hair :

      Oh yeah, swearing at a person/calling a person names is not ok.

    • I do NOT use bad words at work, but will sometimes when I talk to my freind, Laurie, who has had bad luck with men like me. She is divorced and does NOT like it when men decieve her. I have NOT been married, but also have been fooled by men. She wound up with k’ids b/c she beleived her men would support them but they did not. THOSE are the men who we describe with swear words, b/c they were smarter then us, and got us to do stuff for them b/f they dumped us. FOOEY on men like that! I think everyone in the hive feels the same way. DOUBEL FOOEY!

  5. I use the occasional mild curse word at work, but generally do not use stronger curse words because it just feels unprofessional to me. I don’t think less of others who drop F-bombs, as long as it’s not excessive.

  6. I work in politics. There is always lots of internal swearing, especially with this Congress and this Administration haha. There is never public swearing.

  7. Cat Person :

    It depends on the workplace. At one firm, swear words were reserved for the sh!t hitting the fan moments. At another firm, my practice group was notorious for swearing like sailors. At another, founded by Mormons, swear words were off limits; even darn, shoot, and sugar were frowned upon.

  8. I’m not really for or against. I slip the f bomb sometimes without meaning to because I talk that way at home.

    What I am really against, however, is men apologizing to me every time they swear.

    • Men apologizing to me – it’s only ever to a woman – for swearing is the worst. My usual response is something like, “Oh I don’t f * c k i n g mind at all.”

  9. This is kind of a NSFW pic, don’t you think? I definitely wouldn’t want someone walking up behind me with it on my screen.

    • Never too many shoes... :

      You cannot be serious.

      • I am being serious? Are you ok with your boss seeing a picture of something flipping someone off on your computer?

        • Never too many shoes... :

          It is a clothed person holding up a finger. So, yes, I am completely fine with it.

    • Anonymous :

      The person is wearing clothing. What more do you want?

      • The woman not flipping someone off…

        • Anonymous :

          That’s….not what the NSFW tag is for. Your IT department is not going to flag you for looking at a post with someone holding up the middle finger. That’s just not a thing.

    • TBH my boss would have more problem with me being on this s!te all day than this photo in particular, but if you’re in the comments anyone screen looking would never even see the post photo.

  10. Never too many shoes... :

    Maybe it is specific to the litigation environment, but every lawyer I know swears a blue streak in the office.

    • And I work in a litigation environment where swearing is definitely frowned upon and at least two attorneys have been spoken to about language in the office and we have received at least one email reminding us that this is a professional working environment and that anything that the FCC would frown upon is not appropriate.

      In 20+ years of practice, I have found that this is much more determined by geography than specialty, especially if the office is in the South/Utah/Idaho or run by people from those places

      • Never too many shoes... :

        Commentjack – is Idaho a super uptight place? Being Canadian, all I think about Idaho is “potato”.

        • Idaho is a state with a large Mormon population (second in the nation after Utah I believe), particularly in law. While I hesitate to stereotype people, in my general experience Mormons do not swear.

        • It’s a very Mormon/conservative area.

    • biglawanon :

      Yeah, I am also lit and everyone swears, but never AT people.

  11. I can’t imagine ever swearing at work, and feel it is completely inappropriate. As someone who also grew up an a verbally abusive home I would be upset and really anxious if people swore around me regularly at work….. especially if they were supervisors.

    I am not put off by swearing on TV/movies, or even among friends I know well.

    Thank goodness I work in health care, where being surrounded by patients/families also discourages swearing. The stress is crazy high though. There are other ways to deal with stress…..

  12. Huge fan of the work swear. Huge.

    I’m in healthcare finance, and work with a lot of former consultants, mostly men. Drinking and swearing are the keys to the boys club, and I prefer to be a member.

    Swearing has two valuable applications:
    1) Showing excitement/appreciation for a hard-earned victory (“You got it, you f**king got it!”)
    2) Expressing how messed up a situation is (“clusterf**k” is my personal favorite)

    I never swear *at* anyone at work. It’s always an expression of unity.

  13. Anonymous :

    I don’t swear much in general, so by extension not much at work. There is some swearing in the office, but it is situational and I know that at least one person has been disciplined for crossing the line.

    I get the “excuse my language” not from colleagues but from members of the public (government job). I nod and dryly thank the man (it is of course always a man) for his attempt to protect my innocent ears, but confirm that I need the whole story including swearing. One man– the most obnoxious member of the public I’ve ever come across– refused to repeat swearing that was relevant to the investigation to me, so I “guessed” at what must have been said by trotting out progressively more profane theories. He decided it would be easier to just tell me what I wanted to know.

    • “so I “guessed” at what must have been said by trotting out progressively more profane theories.”

      You’re my hero for today. I laughed so hard at this mental image. Just wish this would come up in my line of work so I’d have the opportunity to copy your masterwork!

  14. Anonymous :

    It’s such a delicate balance. I have worked with some people who seem to almost require their associates to swear. It’s some sort of cool kids club.

    But if you’re a woman then you can’t swear when you’re frustrated. Otherwise you’re too emotional or shrill or whatever else they want to call us. I suspect that this is even harder for WOC, though I can’t personally speak to that.

  15. I love swearing. I only do it occasionally and never AT anyone. I just enjoy it. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true.

    I think it has something to do with growing up as a rule-follower in a super-conservative, very religious midwestern state.

  16. Biz Lit Associate :

    One time a male associate colleague – my level – swore (in his own office, which was next to mine) – not even to me, and then came over and apologized. I joked and told him I swear all the time and not to worry about it. But my husband later suggested I should have responded with, “[Name], get the f*ck out of here!” (With a smile, laugh, etc.).

  17. Meg March :

    As a paralegal, I was doing doc review and came across an email where the defendants called plaintiff (our client) a c*nt. I showed it to the lead atty, who blushed heavily, apologized that I had seen it and then apologized again, asking me to run searches for a bunch of other cursewords. I didn’t need the apology, but I think a large part of it was just that that lawyer was very conservative and never cussed, despite others in the office regularly doing so. Also really ran home the “never put in an email something you wouldn’t want your worst enemy to see” idea.

  18. Anonymous :

    I swear ALL the time at work. So does the rest of my office, including during meetings. We are criminal defense lawyers, in case that makes a difference. I almost never swear in front of clients though.

  19. I honestly don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t curse at work. I work in emergency/disaster management, so there are plenty of curse word inducing moments. That, and the fact that my boss is downright terrible and makes me want to pull my hair out.

  20. So late to this thread. But I swear all the time. I don’t call people names (well, I might refer to someone in conversation with someone else as an a-hole) but I say things like FFS and are you f’g kidding me all.the.time.

    I’m do union-side labor law. Do the Teamsters and Steelworkers care if I swear? No f’g way. I do tone it down a good deal around the nurses union reps, who are all small town women with cross jewelry. But even they can let loose sometimes – they’ve seen it all – and they don’t blanch when I say something.

  21. I don’t generally in front of bosses so that when I do, it has impact, like last week when I said that so-and-so was being a pain in the ass on purpose, it had impact.

  22. I swear at work. Most days.

    I started working in a mostly male culture that could not figure out how to fit me in as a female member of the team. I began using profanity as a tool, and it still works very effectively a decade later.

    As soon as the first f-bomb drops, they relax. It works almost every time. I don’t like that that’s the way it is, I wish they could see me as strong or ‘one of the team’ without that, but I’m too far along in my career to care much anymore. If the environment can’t figure out how to fit me in, then I guess I’ll teach them how.

    If I’m honest, it’s also become a bit of an art form and source of personal entertainment.

    I don’t direct it at individuals – I don’t call names.

  23. Pseudonymous :

    I’m not a fan of swearing in the workplace. I’m not offended by it; it just doesn’t strike me as professional at all. I suppose swearing feels like the most “casual” type of speech, so I don’t feel there’s a place for it during 8 to 5 business hours. I would be less bothered by it in the office if it was after-hours when there are fewer people around working late.

    I think it also depends on your industry and the amount of client/customer interaction. I would guess that industries with higher levels of interaction (patient-facing healthcare, higher ed, retail and sales) discourage swearing more than others.

  24. This is an interesting question. Here in the comments, I’m guessing it’s mostly women commenting. I’m a woman too. I swear in my personal life and have been trying to figure out if it’s ok to swear at work.

    Background:

    I recently graduated from law school but haven’t started working at a firm yet. My dad is a lawyer too and one time I heard him talking about a female attorney he was working with and how she says the “f word” and how he found it offputting and distasteful.

    My dad is “old fashioned” and “conservative” and definitely holds some sexist-ish ideas about gender roles. When he said that about the woman lawyer, I obviously sympathized with her. But it made me wonder what male colleagues think about women who swear, and whether I should care what they think. Does playing the part of classy lady who doesn’t curse help you get ahead???

    Please let me know what y’all think.

    • I think it depends on your firms culture. At my firm, although I’m the only female attorney, all the females curse around each other and with most of the associates. However, we rarely curse in front of the owner although the males do, and he curses on occasion himself. I, personally, won’t in front of a client although they sometimes make me wish I would. We have a very relaxed culture here though.

  25. heatherskib :

    Having had my now bureau chief go tearing down the hall repeatedly saying the F word… I don’t worry about swearing in my office. But we aren’t dropping 4 letter words constantly and are on strict professional level with outsiders.

  26. Anonymous :

    Unless I find another word to replace it, I’m going to have to stick with the occasional use of “sh*tshow” at work.

  27. I recently dropped the f-bomb in front of a (male) senior director on my second day of employment at a new company and his response was, “Oh good, you dropped it first so I don’t have to be the bad guy.” Additionally, my (female) direct superior curses like a sailor. I think you just need to read the room, and obviously don’t go blue in front of your clients no matter what they say first.

    My dad was a fireman…I came by my dirty mouth quite honestly. It’s not a matter of being “cool” or whatever…it’s just how I talk.

  28. palehorsevictoria :

    My boss is a swearing whirling dervish. If I could not openly swear at/near him, I would have quit a long time ago. But I never do so in presentations or managerial meetings. Most of my profanity has been focused at hardware and software, or, now that I’m in project management, PMO processes, or missed deadlines. I definitely swear more with my boss than anyone else, and no one has said a single fecking thing.

    God bless the Battlestar Galactica remake for giving us the word ‘frak’ though. And ‘bugger.’ I’ve used that so often without setting off alarms.

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