Insult at work

Lately the word Shit is everywhere. Same here in the first sentence of this article on a highly respected media site.

A few months ago, the CEO of one of my clients used the expletive on a slide during a company-wide presentation, and I was surprised. In May, Arizona Senator Mark Kelly said, “It’s crazy not to do anything about it,” referring to gun violence after the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas. Then I noticed a series of posts on LinkedIn by the new yorker who understood the word. A included a quote from an article about Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, another one quoted former President Donald Trump in reference to comments made during the January 6 insurrection, and the third refers to sex in a piece of fiction.

Swearing has always existed. It has long been the fascination of linguists, writers and professors of English who study early swear words, their use in Shakespearean works, etc. When fast company last visit this subject in 2015, the report cited a study that found 57% of respondents admitted to swearing in the workplace, with differences by age, gender and industry. Since then there have been a number of studies suggest that swearing is a sign of intelligence and honesty, among other things. Netflix even has a series called The history of the oath which was created in 2021, the same year Virginia finally decriminalized swear in public, a law in force since 1792.

As a strong proponent of this all-purpose word (after all, how many words can qualify as a verb, noun, adverb, and adjective?), I can’t help but smile and wonder: is Is it finally acceptable to curse and even drop the so-called f-bomb in professional and public circles?

Today’s post-pandemic reality, the prevalence of social media and 24/7 technology has mixed the private, the public and the professional. The growing casualness of business — attire, protocols and actual workplaces — has been overtaxed by the pandemic. Suddenly, we became intimately familiar with our coworkers’ bed-making prowess, mealtimes for two- and four-legged family members, and the decorating style of the home (or lack thereof).

Growing corporate informality was well underway before the pandemic forced an entire global workforce, including CEOs and other C-suite leaders, to work from home. After all, business casual dress really took off in the 1990s, helped by the rise of Silicon Valley and the wealth it created. Their technology and apps have also allowed work to permeate into every other part of your life, forcing you to take work calls from your bed, while cooking, or perhaps even in the bathroom. Add the last two years to this trend and any remaining boundaries have crumbled, paving the way for people to speak publicly and professionally as they were previously limited to private time with friends or family.

“Television was the first step in bringing public discourse home and making public the kind of thoughts – blogs, social media, memoirs, etc. – that were previously reserved for the private sphere,” says Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics in Georgetown. scholar and author of The New York Times Bestseller Talking from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.: women and men at work and many other books. “Private is going public and there is no doubt that social media has accelerated this trend.”

With people posting their innermost thoughts and experiences, sharing details about abortion, sexual harassment, alcoholism or mental illness for public consumption, the lines between public and private are becoming ever more difficult. more blurred. While this makes some people very uncomfortable, it also creates a safe space for people to be authentic and true to themselves, a value that many companies and leaders profess to embrace. To some extent, the use of profanity is yet another aspect of today’s raw reality.

In 2020, Boston University administrators filed for a trademark in the United States as part of a student-led public service campaign on campus safety during the pandemic. The slogan, “Damn that won’t cut it“, has been plastered on T-shirts, Instagram, billboards, TikTok, buses, etc. And while the university’s adoption of the phrase has raised some eyebrows, the fundraising campaign school and designed by eight communications students specifically aimed to speak the language of their peers and inspire people to take COVID-19 precautions seriously. He garnered national attention with presentations at the Centers for Disease Control and the American Marketing Association, as well as media coverage.

Many associate swearing with anger, and Tannen refers to it as representative of “the culture of argument” these days where everything turns into a fight or a situation of aggression. Certainly, in the United States and some countries where there is less common ground between political opinions, this may be considered a predominant use of the curse, but it is not the only one.

Swearing can be more intensive and emphasize both good and bad things. “That was fucking amazing!” or “You’re fucking brilliant!” seems to be packing a lot more excitement than saying, “That was amazing!” or “You are brilliant!” Somehow you feel even more amazing or glowing with the addition of this seemingly rude adverb. (I’ll ignore Stephen King’s rebuke, “The road to hell was paved with adverbs.” I saw his Twitter feed – which also includes swear words– and I believe he would agree here.)

One of the obvious benefits of not filtering your speech is that you look and sound like you, achieving the holy grail of authenticity that so many people crave. Studies show that people are more likely to swear in front of those they feel comfortable with, which promotes increased connection. So as long as you don’t insult someone or use profanity or any language to attack someone, you should be fine, right?

Not necessarily. Business professionals and linguists say it’s important to understand your organization, your team dynamics, and your expectations before letting the big words out at work. And even when it’s socially acceptable for some, that doesn’t mean it’s equally acceptable for everyone.

“Cursing what is acceptable and admirable in men is often seen as unacceptable in women,” Tannen says. “There is an image of a tough guy that is reinforced by this kind of talk, but there is no comparable image of a tough woman who is going to be positive because there are always expectations. about how women should look and speak.”

Take for example this recent post on LinkedIn by a woman I did not know. Mackenzie (Mack) Smith, when announcing her new role as Head of Communications at Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates following the recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade said, “Let’s go.

It didn’t take long for a number of men to comment on her post about her use of profanity, which quickly sparked rearguard action from women and men defending her and responding to the self -called “tone police”. Smith, whose post received more than 28,000 reactions, said she used the word to show how excited she was about her new role. However, “what is called into question in some of these comments is my professionalism, and I would suggest that attacking a stranger on LinkedIn says more about their professionalism than my use of implied profanity,” he said. she noted in a follow-up interview.

There is a term for this gender duality called the Double bond, defined as a situation in which a person is faced with two irreconcilable demands that allow no appropriate response. For example, women are expected to be gentle and caring, but leaders are expected to be strong and decisive. Or, in this case, women are meant to act more like male stereotypes to get ahead and then face criticism for not being motherly and ladylike.

So, does that mean women shouldn’t swear? Surely not! It just means that like so many other things in life, like walking alone at night, meeting a stranger for a drink, etc., you need to be more careful. Know your audience and understand the potential implications of speaking the way you want.

All in all, as public and personal life increasingly intertwine, so will the rules that have long governed them. After all, it was common not to discuss money, religion, or politics at work. There are certainly realities and repercussions of these developments, both good and bad, so it’s important to understand how authentic you can be at any given time or place.


Anne Marie Squeo is CEO and founder ofProof point communications,a marketing and communications boutique and a Pulitzer Prize-winning business journalist.


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