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Cursing / Cussing at the workplace.

The Oyemaja Executives, a division of The Oyemaja Group.

What constitutes acceptable profanity at work depends on the context in which the obscenities are voiced, the tone of the profanity, the target of the profanity, the audience listening to it or reading it, and the precise words that are used. The amount of profanity that someone hears on a daily basis has increased even over the past decade. This was nowhere more apparent than sitting at home hosting a Super Bowl party and while watching a commercial hearing a guest exclaim: “can they really cuss in a commercial?”

Cursing and cussing have always been a part of human vernacular. We even have aphorisms describing the use of “salty” language.

Saying someone curses “like a sailor” is simply stating that their spoken choice of verbiage is heavily seasoned with terminology that would make people in polite company blush. Social attitudes are definitely changing in regards to the use of profane language in the workplace. Numerous studies have shown potential benefits depending on the personnel involved and the specific context that surrounds the usage. Some potentially beneficial uses are called out below with a note of caution – not all workplaces are the same and a potential positive is not applicable in all circumstances.

A lot of people resort to using cuss words for so many reasons, one of which is to gain social acceptance. While not limited to using swear words, conversational cursing with peers has been shown to increase bonding and camaraderie among teammates. By using similar forms of language the group, individuals are able to secure their place in that hierarchy and know that their feelings and intent are appropriately communicated. This level of use and acceptance can vary wildly among different groups of employees. One study completed by Yehuda Baruch and Stuart Jenkins looked into the different environments of workers. This study looked at warehouse and office workers and found discrepancies among these environments. This paralleled the interactivity of employees and customers, employees who interacted with customers had lower rates of cursing overall and one can infer that the lower and more isolated employees are, such as in warehousing or manufacturing environments, the more usage of swear words would be accepted.

Also, to establish personal control, you know the feeling of being overwhelmed in any situation is not a happy or pleasant feeling. Swearing provides a sense of fighting back against a feeling of being overpowered by current circumstances. This fight response allows for a sense of empowerment over the current situation which can lead to action and positive movement. However, this effect treads a fine line. Often swearing accompanies anger and excessive anger can overwhelm any set of circumstances if not managed. The goal here would be to use curse words as an outlet to rein in the anger and establish positive control. To quote Mark Twain: When angry, count to four; when very angry, swear.

Another point to consider is that it is used as a relief valve, swearing can have valuable benefits both physically and psychologically. The act can reduce stress and according to one study, can even boost adrenaline and physiological responses to external pain and stimuli: “Richard Stephens of Keele University found that people who swear are able to hold their hands in ice-water for twice as long”

However, just because there are positives to using this form of communication in the workplace does not mean that everyone has a free license to spout off as a “potty mouth” all day. There are many situations and scenarios where cursing is inappropriate and potentially legally damaging.

There is a very fine line between humorous, friendly insults and hurtful statements or harassment. The fact is, the distinction between the messaging does not rely upon the intent of the speaker, but instead upon the perception of the listener to discern.This perception can lead to some very serious consequences depending on the nature and specifics of the language being used. In the worst cases it can lead to HR involvement, termination, and harassment lawsuits. The main problem is that no static list of words can be generated that cover all possible scenarios. George Carlin said it succinctly: At the end of the day, you are responsible for what comes out of your mouth.

This includes ensuring that you have an understanding of the culture and social norms present in your workplace. If there is any doubt, then the safest avenue would be to remove that type of language from your vocabulary. However, there are some instances where letting a little sailor out can have positive impacts in the workplace. Each scenario should be weighed and considered and all feedback regarding the appropriateness of each statement should be considered.

Conclusively, don’t give in to the peer pressure to curse if you don’t want to. Shakespeare never used profanities to curse, if you feel the need to express yourself in this manner then it isn’t hard to follow in his footsteps and expand your vocabulary to replicate the crudeness of vulgarity through the use of creative euphemism. Remember, we all use the same sets of words to communicate.



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