Is it okay to swear in the workplace?

Have you been to a bookshop lately? There’s something vulgar afoot in the self-help section. See if you can spot the trend:

The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck
How to Make Sh*t Happen
Get Your Sh*t Together  

That's a small selection of a rather large group. And back in 2011, inspired by Go The F*** To Sleep, there was a deluge of imitators offering ironic sweary children’s titles that were really for adults.

Now, LinkedIn is full of blogs by ’thought leaders’, ‘gurus’ and ‘visionaries’ telling us to “man the f*** up, get out there and f***ing crush it!"

Bad language seems to be big business. Its attention-grabbing effect can’t be denied, if the context is right.

But where’s the line? And how much is too much in the workplace?

Why do we swear, anyway?


Firstly, for many of us, it’s quite fun. But recent brain science discoveries show there are logical reasons behind why.

As we grow up learning that certain words are ‘banned’ in polite conversation, they get filed away in a special place in our brain. This results in swear words eventually making the heart beat faster, priming us to think aggressive thoughts.

According to Scientific American,

"Researchers speculate that brain circuitry linked to emotion is involved. Earlier studies have shown that unlike normal language, which relies on the outer few millimeters in the left hemisphere of the brain, expletives hinge on evolutionarily ancient structures buried deep inside the right half.”

Swearing is also quite useful as pain relief - as you’ll probably know if you’ve stepped on a Lego brick or whacked your toe on a table leg. A loud stream of “shit shit shit shit shit” is the quickest way to divert your brain away from the pain, at least temporarily.

As for communication, a well-placed curse word can spice up a sentence no end. There’s something primally satisfying about the plosive sharpness of certain swears - twat, delivered with an exclamation point and a dash of ire, is a fabulous way to punctuate an insult. It’s fun to pepper a sentence with the rhythmic bobble of an abso-fucking-lutely.

But overdoing it can quickly outstay its welcome. We all know someone who curses a bit too much. Loudly, in public, with children around - no filter, effin’ and jeffin’ with no remorse.

Some like to defend this behaviour with the old “I just say it like it is” tosh. But a study published in the Journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science found that honest people tend to use less, not more, profanity in their daily speech.

You might reasonably infer from this that sweary people have something to hide behind their dressed-up language. Hmm…

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Can you get away with cursing in the workplace?

AI researcher and writer Emma Byrne thinks so. In her book Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language, she dives into the truth of why we curse, and how it can help us emphatically make a point and build a more inclusive workplace.

“…Research shows that swearing can help build teams in the workplace. From the factory floor to the operating theatre, scientists have shown that teams who share a vulgar lexicon tend to work more effectively together, feel closer and be more productive than those who don’t.”

If you’re sensitive to your audience, you’ll be able to judge what’s right and what isn’t. Sprinkling some salty language in a job interview probably won’t do you any favours, but if it’s during after-work drinks with the team, the boss likely won’t mind hearing a few fruitful adjectives.

Some people genuinely don’t like it, and that’s something that needs to be respected too. Yes, you might think it's a little conservative, but forcing someone to hear your swearing if they’re not used to such a profane environment will probably distract them at least. No point upsetting people when you’ve got a million other words in the dictionary you could use.

If you’re doing it via email, be careful. Part of the art of cursing is the intonation with which you deliver it. Body language doesn’t translate into the written word, and what sounds like a jokey bit of banter in your head might come over as an aggressive jab when your colleague reads it. And it’s hard to defend if HR get a copy of the paper trail. “I was only joking” doesn’t usually go down well at a tribunal.

Photo by Allie Smith / Unsplash

And swearing won’t work in every situation. Emma Byrne highlights the negative side:

"One of the dangers of our emotional response to strong language is that we often pay more attention to tone than content.”

It’s true - if people are concentrating on how offended they are by your swearing, they won’t hear the point you’re trying to make.

I still cringe at the memory of a project meeting I was leading, many years ago. I was passionately making a point to a group of my peers, and punctuated my final point with an emphatic F-bomb. There were a few gasps, then some outraged chatter along the lines of “you can’t say that” and “language, mate.”

My point was missed in the kerfuffle, and I shuffled back to my seat, tail between my legs. Lesson learnt: read the room, man.

My favourite example of unwelcome workplace swearing is from a clip from The Fast Show. Shane Donoghue, a guest on That’s Amazing, gets a bit carried away telling a story.

“You can’t swear mate, this is a family show.” 

In conclusion: you don’t have to be a foul-mouthed Gordon Ramsay wannabe to get your point across. Don't be a Shane Donoghue.

But the occasional curse might be a flipping great idea. You melon.