When It’s Okay to Swear at Work

I don’t swear.

Let me clarify.

I rarely swear. The exceptions were like this Sunday morning when my cat made a flying leap onto my head at 5:20 am, waking me up.

I have never sworn at work, I don’t like swearing, and I don’t allow bad words in the HR group I moderate, but should you swear at work? What are the upsides and downsides?

The upside of a few expertly placed f-bombs.

Because I don’t generally swear, if I were to use such a word, people would notice. We all remember the scandalous scene in Gone with the Wind where Rhett Butler has finally had enough of Scarlet’s behavior and drops the “d” bomb, with “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Of course, today, we wouldn’t think that was strong language, but in 1939 it was shocking.

To keep reading, click here: When It’s Okay to Swear at Work

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13 thoughts on “When It’s Okay to Swear at Work

  1. It’s cultural.

    I work in an environmental company with a strong culture of working your way up from the bottom–even the executives and senior managers have stories of working behind drill rigs, or on excavators, or as laborers. If you’ve worked with drillers, or excavator operators, or laborers, you know they swear. They don’t mean anything by it, it’s just part of their language. Trust me, after working ten hours in blistering heat, knee-deep in contaminated water, and getting stung, bitten, and otherwise abused by wildlife, the idea that a mere word has any moral significance is laughable.

    While language does get cleaner as you move up the ranks, there’s still little stigma attached to the words. A random four-letter word doesn’t attract notice. If you do it all the time people may notice, but only as a personality quirk. There’s one person I work with, for example. We know how upset that person is by how many swear words they use. When this person uses zero, that’s when you know you’ve crossed a major line and things are about to get really, really bad.

    All that said, obviously different companies will be different. Where I work blue jeans, a farmer’s tan, and swearing are just part of the job, and help present the image of calm competence, because that’s how competent people dress and act in this field. The same thing in a bank would have the opposite effect–in that case you want to be clean-cut, well-dressed, and keep the language clean.

  2. Yes, context is paramount. My first job out of law school, my boss was retired from the Navy and — literally — “swore like a sailor.” I worked there 6 years and left also swearing like a sailor. Now, 40 years later, I still have to watch myself, to keep from — inadvertently, inappropriately — dropping an “F Bomb.”

  3. My all-time favorite substitution you’ve ever used was “squid lips.”

    I did read somewhere that if you hit your finger with a hammer, swearing helps mitigate some of the pain. We could also just do it in gibberish like Yosemite Sam.

    1. I’m a big enough nerd that I got into the whole constructed language thing. My sister is a literature professor, I was (am) obsessed with Tolkien, and….well, one thing sort of lead to another. It’s useful. I use it in my passwords–the thing makes sense to me, making it easier to remember, but to most people something like “mornaistam117” is just a jumble of letters. And it allowed me to swear in a way that no one could take offense to. “Egrika” means nothing to anyone but me, so no one takes offense.

      I don’t use it as much at work, for obvious reasons, but my language slips out every once in a while when I bang my knee or get stung.

  4. I swore at work on my first job. I was an engineering intern. The reason was an anti-semitic “joke” and a personalized rejoinder from the egregious employee. Called into the shop foreman’s office, I explained why I swore and then I was urged to “show more restraint.” I replied with a question and answer discussion as follows:

    Me: How long has that employee been hassling me? Its been since my first day. And this is the first time I replied in kind. Don’t you think I’ve shown remarkable restraint already?

    Shop super so wanted to tell me to get the flock out of his office. For many other reasons, I quit soon after.

  5. One of my co-workers was quite amused by some of my non-swearing creations, including “sheet”, “flock”, and one rather good one I can’t think of at the moment. I mean, I would say these very loudly (shout) and sometimes very suddenly if something happened. I work in an office environment.

    1. I’ve always found “shut the front door” as a particularly creative euphemism for telling someone to “shut the f up,” since both lip read exactly the same.

      1. I have heard that one before and that is a good one.

        The other one that I have used is “Frell” – a cross between (Fu** and He**).

  6. “Bad words”? Swearing is sometimes inappropriate, but swear words are not “bad”.

  7. Swearing can be particularly useful in some situations for diffusing gendered bullcr**. I make a point of dropping the occasional crude term when I’m around leadership who play the “Sorry, fellas, there’s a lady present,” card in condescending ways

    1. I’ve been known to say, “I’m no lady; I’m a woman,” in response to patronizing, paternalistic, statements.

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