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I Swear because I Care

Yesterday, TLNT.com published an interesting piece about swearing (cussing, using foul language, etc.) in the workplace.  Here are the cliff’s notes as I read it: half of employees say they swear at work, the other look down their nose in judgement on them for doing it.

While I’m not sure what the point of the research was or why Careerbuilder.com is doing this kind of research (beyond an attempt at snagging free PR that has little to do with their core business), it did remind me of a topic I’ve always love to talk about: swearing.

First, let’s put it on the table that I am a skilled and long time cusser.  I grew up on a farm, have worked on construction crews, and played sports at one point or another in my life.  All places where you learn the fine art of swearing.  I have, over the years. learned to self-censor in appropriate circumstances like around small children and while working at a bank (you’ll note that I rarely swear in my posts).  But, I still swear a fair amount.  And, I’m good at it.

That being said, I have found that a lot of people swear.  When you get people in the right situation, a large number of them cuss, even using the feared, “f-word” with ease.  Accountants, school teachers, stay at home moms, and even human resources professionals can all be overheard cussing from time to time.

So, it is with some amusement that I wonder how these particular words have become villainized.  Why these words over some other set of words (in my house, I’d rather hear my kids utter the word “crap” than “hate”)?  And, why do some people get their knickers in such a bunch when they hear swear words?

In my experience, the expert use of swear words can be an extremely powerful tool.  It can signal a more informal tone and get the person you are with to let their guard down.  It can provide emphasis and act as a signal to the other person that you are serious.  As a sales guy years ago, one of my executive clients who happened to swear quite a bit, said to me one day, “If you ain’t swearin’, you ain’t carin’.”  He saw swearing as a sign of passion and engagement.

I think the fact that so many people make such a big deal of swearing is another sign that we need to step by and take a collective deep breath.  Who cares if someone is swearing?  It’s just words.  Granted, the situation and context is important, but that’s true for a lot of things in our lives.  Whereas saying, “F***ing A, Padre, that was a great sermon,” is probably inappropriate in most churches, it might be absolutely appropriate to say in your next staff meeting, “It seems to me we keep recycling the same bulls**t and I think we should look at this in a new way.”

Swearing is part of our language.  And, it’s a part of our language that is almost universally understood.  Most everyone can spell and pronounce swear words correctly.  They can generally use them correctly.  And, they are rarely misunderstood by the receipt of the communication.  That sounds pretty effective to me.  If only all of our communication was so clear.

So, the next time you want to get all tied up on knots about someone who swears too much, ask yourself two questions:

  • Did I understand clearly what they were trying to communicate?
  • What legitimate harm did the use of swear words cause?

If the answer to first question is “yes,” and the answer to the second question is “none,” then you need to chill out.  The problem isn’t the swear words–it’s your judgement of the person using them that’s causing the problems.

Let it go.

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  1. Jon Mertz

    Interesting perspective, Jason. More than in the workplace, I struggle with this as I see teens post on Facebook using the F word very frequently. I tell my sons to cool it on using it because it doesn’t reflect well on them, now and in their future.

    I understand how using them in an “expert” way can get people’s attention, as long as it isn’t used in every other sentence. Frequency may be the key.

    Thanks for a good discussion on this topic.

    Jon

  2. Jason

    Jon – Great points. I think it’s like so many other things (how we dress, who we associate with, what decisions we make), it’s all about being intentional and appropriate. When I talk to my 15 year old about swearing, I tell him that I know he’s going to swear. But, that he needs to understand when it’s appropriate and when it’s not. Swearing in front of the kids or other adults at this point, at school or on Facebook, not appropriate. Hanging out with his buddies, probably okay. I just find it very interesting how worked up some people get over how other people talk–particularly when the communication was crystal clear.

    Thanks so much for the comments Jon. As always, you added perspective and depth to the discussion. Thank you.

  3. Bob Marshall

    See also Stephen Fry on Swearing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_osQvkeNRM

    – Bob

  4. Randy Conley

    Hey Jason. I’m a bit old school when it comes to swearing, no matter the location or context. I think there are a few situations where a well-timed curse word is effective in driving home a point or getting someone’s attention, but I think using curse words in general conversation with regular occurrence tends to negatively affect that person’s reputation. I guess it’s the upbringing from my mom and her constant admonitions that cursing shows your lack of intelligence (or verbal skills) to use more appropriate words to communicate.

    Thanks for the insightful and valuable perspective.

    Randy

Jason Lauritsen