F** It! Is There a Place for Swearing in the Workplace?
*Warning this article may contain swear words*
Fuck, shit, bastard, wanker, bugger. These are some of my favourite words. They express any pent-up anger, frustration, and emotion in one short burst. Why use full sentences to explain an unfortunate turn of events, when a simple “Bollocks” will sum it up perfectly.
Swear words are like emojis for speech. They give a clear and precise expression of your feelings. When used correctly, they can be a hugely effective communication tool. While swearing was once frowned on, modern culture accepts that this is part of how people interact and communicate and this is reflected in music, films, literature, as well as socially.
Be mindful that when swearing is used incorrectly, it can be damaging and come off as aggressive and rash, so should always be used with caution.
So, does swearing having a place in the workplace?
Swearing is Good for Us
Researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA) suggest that swearing in the workplace may be more beneficial than many people would think:
· Researchers found that swearing actually helped co-workers build relationships with one another and enabled them to truly express their feelings
· Swearing elicits feelings of trust and reliability and can reduce stress, the study found
· But the researchers were careful to point out that the use of too many expletives has a negative effect
Swearing is a Form of Pain Relief
Further research at the University of Keele showed that people can withstand an ice-cold water challenge for longer by repeatedly swearing when compared with reciting a neutral word. However, the benefits tailed off when the participants swore all the time as they became desensitised to the effect.
It is believed that swearing helps most people better tolerate pain by provoking an emotional response in the speaker – possibly aggression or anger – leading to ‘stress-induced analgesia’. This natural form of pain relief is part of the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response, along with the well-known surge in adrenalin. However, it seems that people who curse more often get used to profanity (a psychologist would say they become ‘habituated’ to swearing), and as such they do not get the same level of emotional response, and consequently, they do not get the same pain relieving effect.
With Swearing, Context is Everything
So, we’ve explored two cases where swearing has benefits, but would you consider its right to swear in front of a client or new colleague? Well context is everything and you would have to be pretty sure that no offence would be taken before ‘Effing and Jeffing’ in front of them.
The UEA research talks about swearing among the team and specifically not at individuals. If you shout at a colleague or employee, or verbally abuse them with or without swearing, you can expect to see a drop in morale, engagement, and performance. This is fairly obvious, as no one likes being shouted at or treated without respect.
Choose your words correctly has always been a good communicator’s mantra, and in the case for swearing this is critical, as inappropriate use of language can have severe consequences.
Swearing Shows Personality
One of the things the UEA research is highlighting is that incidental swearing can be very effective at conveying personality and it's particularly effective when it's self-deprecating:
"Ouch! I cut my bastard self-shaving!"
"What a f***king idiot I am!"
"I was shit at that!"
Comedians do it all the time realising that by being the butt of the joke, the only one who should be taking offence is themselves.
Animals and inanimate objects can also come in for their fair share too:
· “The bloody dog has shit on the carpet again!”
· “This printer is shit; we need a new one”
This type of swearing shows all your displeasure and anger at the situation. Again, this not directed at an individual person, so is less likely to be seen as offensive.
Triggers that can cause us to swear could be anger, stress, pain, frustration, rage, and anything that can cause an emotional response that raises our blood pressure. Work can be a ripe source of these and by letting off steam with a few choice words this can a great release of stress. It can also calm a toxic situation by bringing humour in to play, i.e. by swearing at a computer screen when it’s not giving you the information you want, or a constantly engaged phone when you need to speak to someone urgently.
It also feels that you have at least done something rather than nothing, a sense of regaining some control in an uncontrollable world.
The ‘C’ Word
Most swear words crop up and in the right context can be said without people taking offence. However, there is a line with swearing which takes it to another level, and for the majority of people, the “C” word is the one to avoid. In the UK this is commonly seen as the worst form of swearing.
When is it ‘Safe’ to Swear?
Suggestions as to when swearing could be safely used:
Only with safety checks per-conversation
When you are very close in social standing to your correspondent
When the correspondent uses it first
I tend to use this last suggestion as a good guide as to the acceptable language in a new environment as if you were meeting a new client the last thing you wish to do is cause offence.
So, should we all be ranting like a TV chef to get the best out of ourselves and our colleagues in the workplace? Probably not is the answer.
However, should we feel free to express our personality from time to time and release those pent up emotions, in a safe, non-aggressive way? Definitely.
There’s a fine line between being an effective swearer and an offensive one, and of course they are also some grey areas in the middle. However, if you are mindful and respectful to consider the situation and context, then it should be a positive outcome whether it be stress relief, team bonding, anger management, pain suppression, or even lightening the tone with comedic value.
Be honest, when was the last time you felt like swearing at work?
- James Haley
Global Director at EA Inclusion