I Swear!

by  Guest Author  |  Leadership Coaching
I Swear! post image

A few weeks back, Steve Scaramucci lost his position as White House Communications Director in part because he was unable to keep a foul mouth in check in a New Yorker magazine interview. More importantly, Scaramucci and his abrasive demeanor did not cohere with Chief of Staff, General John Kelly.

But wait. A man with over 45 years of military experience surely would not be offended by salty language, would he? To steal an old recruitment slogan, Kelly hears more cursing before 9am than most people do all day. Following his nomination to Chief of Staff, a former colleague of Kelly’s told NPR that the general is, of course, no stranger to course talk. So how can a man criticize profanity when his own utterances of “mother” are rarely a reference to his mom?

If an old Marine won’t stand for it, where does obscene language fit in the business workplace, if at all?

Cursing is commonplace in my line of work, though I keep my own filthy outbursts scarce. Despite this, profanity is in no way offensive to me. There’s not a word that shocks me, and I would sooner get upset over a label of “lazy” or “inconsiderate”, as these carry more thought and meaning than any common vulgarities. When the F Word is evenly applied to dogs, drivers, expired yogurt, or NFL referees, it lacks umph. I get it, though. You are angry.

While not disturbed, I take mental note. I get it. You are angry. Also, you are impulsive. You may lack the restraint necessary for other tasks as well. You might be undisciplined, and you appear inelegant with the English language.

And while some aren’t beleaguered by this language, we can’t be certain that others aren’t. I have winced at profanity in the office, not because it bothers me but because it does not fit the context. I have told my share of dirty jokes, though none at a funeral…that I can recall. If there is a place for profanity at work, know that place. Are you in the conference room or break room? If there is an audience for profanity, know your audience.

Some negatives of profanity:

Using profanity at work can demonstrate a lack of discipline. I am always amazed when people swear in front of children, usually adding an “oops” and covering their mouths. It is foolish to ruin a reputation of hard work by showing you cannot control your tongue. If it makes me question whether someone can manage themselves it can certainly raise the same doubts to a boss or client.

Using profanity at work can demonstrate a lack of respect. Not to mention possible EEO or HR issues, using foul language around a coworker can be like packing a PBJ everyday when you know he has a peanut allergy. It can cause distress and alienate workmates. Minding your tongue can be a difficult process. An entire Bible chapter is dedicated to this, saying that “all kinds of animals are tamed…but no one can tame the tongue.” (James 3:7-8) But the alternative to the discipline of watching our words might be harming relationships or impeding otherwise useful work collaboration.

Some positives of profanity:

Profanity in the workplace can demonstrate authenticity. Sprinkled in conversation, colleagues can see that you are honest and just like them. It may allow you to bond and be accepted by the group. Face it, the Puritan who eats dry toast at their desk while the group laughs it up in the lunch room isn’t really part of the team. And we have all had that “Whoa, Jerry!” moment when the normally stoic partner tosses out a filthy joke. And doesn’t that help to connect?

Profanity in the workplace can motivate. If you are conservative with your language, a well-placed F Bomb can stir the crowd. Need to emphasize a point? An unexpected profanity can grab attention. Keep in mind that if every conversation includes George Carlin’s Seven Words, the shock factor is lost.

As a side story, my mother absolutely could not handle any form of profanity, whatsoever. The F word in our house was fart, and we were not allowed to use it. Mom once gave me her VHS copy of Apollo 13 because she “couldn’t handle the language.” The best gift she ever received from me was the V Chip, which worked off of the Closed Captioning to audit out bad words. My father would laugh, because on the extreme mode an actor would talk about smoking a cigarette *bottom* after the great *hugs* he had the night before.

In mom’s opinion, it would be best to have a V Chip in the workplace as well.


Elliot Anderson is the pseudonym of a midwestern father and writer who wishes work were not such a painful place for people. He believes if leaders would invoke simple courtesies, they could help employees thrive. As a team player, he brings joy to his workplace by cracking jokes and sharing food. He’s worked in both nonprofit and government organizations. He studied religion, journalism, and intercultural studies. Though you won’t find Elliot on social channels, he will respond to comments on his articles here.


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What People Are Saying

Mike Henry Sr.  |  29 Aug 2017  |  Reply

Elliot, unfortunately, I’m no stranger to foul language either, both from myself or others. I agree there are several negatives to using profanity, but I disagree that profane language has any positives. If we can abstain from using profanity and still empathize with our teammates; and if we can still communicate urgency without using profanity, we make our teams and our environments better. The best possible outcome of using profanity is that it brings us “down” to a lazier form of communication. At worst, we take others with us.

Having stated that belief, every time I use profanity, I put my “hypocrite” hat on.

When others use profanity, if I react by being offended, I separate myself. As times have changed, I shouldn’t be surprised by what I hear. We may, like your mom, choose not to listen. I’d prefer my grandkids and my wife didn’t have to hear it. But our world is choosing it more and more.

I want to train my kids or my grandchildren not to judge others, but to know that there are better ways to communicate. I believe we lift others up by choosing not to use profanity and also choosing not to be offended.

I’m only sad that there are times when I fall short and end up proving my own ability to be a hypocrite.

Elliot  |  01 Sep 2017  |  Reply

I agree that the “benefits” of profanity are mild when compared to real and possible harms; this includes distancing colleagues and destroying relationships.

I applaud your desire to teach the kids not to judge, but you and I know that it is a natural outcome of human life. I frankly judge others who sloppily lean on foul language or succumb easily to anger. As much as I try not to, it is a losing fight.

As to the positives of profanity, I still think they are true. I have seen colorful language act to bond people together where more delicate words would seem awkward. That said, I would rather choose my words carefully and without offense on every occasion. I prefer that people hear what I truly have to say without distraction – and I do a decent job of this unless alone in traffic, where everything is between me and the windows.

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