Of course, work makes us want to swear. But should you?
There are endless reasons to want to say profanity these days: the cost of everything is rising, the pandemic lingers into year three, the link to this must-watch video conference isn’t working. For months at home, we got comfortable and said what we wanted, even when it was a four-letter word.
Some of us bring that authenticity, fresh perspective, and casualness back to the office. Analysis by Sentieo, a financial intelligence platform, found that swearing in transcripts of quarterly earnings calls, investor conferences and shareholder meetings reached a five-year high in 2021, when 166 of those transcripts contained foul language. In the first three months of this year, 50 transcripts contained swearing, up from 42 last year.
“Business formality is on its way out,” says Nick Mazing, Sentieo’s research director. In 2020, he noticed a lot of sober language in the transcripts and talks about gratitude.
Now many seem to be saying f-it.
Yet, deploy a swear word at the wrong time or in the wrong company, and it can quickly derail your career. Nancy Halpern, a leadership consultant who helps executives navigate office politics, recommends looking two rungs above you on the org chart to determine what language is acceptable in your company. Try to separate the swearing from the complaining, she says, so it doesn’t come across as a double negative.
Avoid dropping swear words in emails or when addressing a large group – you don’t want comments to be widely shared, where they might lose context. And do it sparingly.
“Don’t let it be the default,” she says. “Let it be by choice.”
Done right, swearing can provide emotional release, help you psychologically withstand pain and cement team bonds, says Danette Ifert Johnson, the Kalamazoo College provost who has researched swearing in the workplace.
“It feels like we’re suddenly on a very human, raw and honest level,” Agnes Naseniece, who works in human resources in Calgary, Canada, says of sharing a moment of profanity with colleagues. .
The 31-year-old bonded with a colleague when she found him muttering profanity in a low voice through a faulty printer in the office. When his team was recently exhausted trying to come up with new enterprise software, they added a few F-words, and it reminded them that they were all in this together, doing the best they could, says- she.
Her rules: she’s never the first to swear, and she never does it in front of bosses.
In meetings, Jennifer Bosworth will express what she really thinks (eg, it’s $%@*-ing $%!#) under her desk in American Sign Language. A former performer, the community college administrator finds it a safe way to vent her frustrations among those who might not be into profanity.
In small talk with people she trusts, Mrs. Bosworth lets her favorite expletive fly, the one that begins with f. She has noticed that others are also turning to spicy language. Recently, one of his superiors used the word “damn” during a conference call.
“I almost unmuted and said, ‘Hell yeah,'” she said.
A well-placed swear word can cut the tension. McKenzie Mortensen Ross, who lives in Gig Harbor, Washington, and works for a semiconductor company, is often the only woman in the (virtual) room during meetings.
“I’m part of the landscape until someone, for example, drops an F-bomb,” she says.
Then all of a sudden, there’s a chorus of apologies directed at her. His answer ?
“You will never have to apologize to me,” she told them. Everybody laughs; the room relaxes.
Ms Ross, who has a bomb-shaped clipboard on her desk emblazoned with an F, likes the taboo nature of four-letter words.
“There’s something visceral about it,” she says. “It just feels good.”
But she says it’s the swearer’s responsibility to read the piece and apologize immediately if a listener bristles.
“If there’s a situation where you might be crossing the line, just own it,” she says. “Things don’t always land.”
Mark Troy knows this from experience. The 61-year-old, who recently retired after a 35-year career in law, still remembers the mistake he made more than a decade ago when he stood up in front of everyone associates of his new law firm and made a joke about a case, punctuated by the F-word.
“It haunted me,” he says.
At the time, all he heard was laughter. But over the years, it became clear that some main partners had taken umbrage. They mentioned it to him at company events. They didn’t send him a case.
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Mr. Troy had thought that using that word would make him seem laid back and funny. Instead, “the other partners remembered me for being smart and sarcastic,” he says.
Some didn’t want to work with him, he said, adding that he was careful not to swear at work after that.
Wil Reynolds tried to cut back. Years ago, the chief executive of digital marketing agency Seer Interactive stumbled across comments from attendees at a conference he was speaking at. They complained that his language was unprofessional. So he cleaned up his act for his next few appearances, only to find himself stumbling onstage, randomly stopping, not communicating his points clearly.
The 45-year-old had grown up with comedians like Richard Pryor playing in the background at his New Jersey home. “You have to be willing to accept that some people were brought up in a way that you weren’t,” he says.
Mr Reynolds backtracked on the swearing, but he only does so to describe something positive, like an employee who crushed him on a project.
For him, swearing is the same as the dreadlocks in his hair or the flip-flops he wears on stage at conferences. It makes him feel like himself – confident, comfortable, able to do a better job.
“If I kick ass at my job, shouldn’t that be it?” he says.
Write to Rachel Feintzeig at Rachel.Feintzeig@wsj.com
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