Career

WTF! Is your workplace a 'hotbed of profanity?'

Jan. 27, 2014 at 10:19 AM ET

Does profanity belong in the modern workplace? Hell yes, say some business insiders. 

“Wall Street is a hotbed of profanity,” says Dennis Gibb, a former Morgan Stanley trader and Bear Stearns junior partner. “You’ve got a lot of high-testosterone people with big egos making a lot of money. When you’ve just bought 100,000 shares of something, profanity is a pretty appropriate response.”

To be sure, bad language reigns in Martin Scorsese’s movie, "The Wolf of Wall Street." Setting a record for the number of f-words —506 — Gibb says the film’s portrayal is exaggerated, but not by much. Swearing, especially when combined with humor, can be essential to lower stress when working in a pressurized environment, he said.

Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Jordan Belfort in a scene from "The Wolf of Wall Street," which is laced with profanity. Does swearing have a place at work?
Mary Cybulski / Paramount Pictures
Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Jordan Belfort in a scene from "The Wolf of Wall Street," which is laced with profanity. Does swearing have a place at work?

"I spent 10 years in the Army. It's the same thing [as high-stakes commerce]—someone's trying to kill you," said Gibb, vice president of Sweetwater Investments in Redmond, Wash.

Vulgar language seems to be the rule rather than the exception at many jobs these days, according to some employees, who often attribute it to the influence of popular culture. Still, it’s no secret that some people curse more than others at work, particularly, it seems, the office alphas.

“People sometimes use [profanity] as a weapon,” acknowledges Gibb. “I think it’s a way of trying to show dominance, like gorillas beating their chests.”

Timothy Jay, a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and an authority on swearing, has found that extroverted, Type-A personalities can be more inclined to use strong language at work.

“Some personality factors are associated with the motivation to use curse words, such as impulsivity and masculinity,” writes Jay in a theoretical paper. “These kinds of people have difficulty restraining their use of curse words; they use curse words to achieve personal states or effects (e.g., for stress reduction) and to affect others (e.g., for bullying.)”

Melissa Mohr, author of Holy Sh**, a Brief History of Swearing (Oxford University Press, 2013), concurs. She notes that, historically, forceful, taboo language has been associated with dominant male behavior. “People have always sworn when they’ve hurt themselves, when they’re angry, when they’re happy. But when it looks like aggression, it can be a dominant display. Swearing is a sign that the speaker is emotionally aroused.”

The modern phenomenon of women swearing in public is relatively recent, she says, but generally profanity’s role in society has remained constant. Word usage is still an indicator of the speaker’s “sexual schema” and social order — especially when dealing with high-impact, provocative or offensive words.  

Take, for example, Mohr’s study of swearing in ancient Roman society. The Romans divided men into “active” and “passive” categories, and then invented swear words solely for “active” males to use on “passive” ones.

“‘Active’ ones were the ‘real men’ who could basically sleep with anybody,” says Mohr. "To be the ‘passive’ man was the stigmatized position.”

In modern times the link between profanity and sex has been preserved, with many obscene words still referring to sex or body parts. This accounts for sometimes incongruous usage in work situations.

Some people feel profanity and professionalism don’t mix.

“Profanity triggers a physical reaction in me. I actually sometimes experience it as if I'd been slapped in the face,” admits Heath Davis Havlick, a media relations specialist at eQuest in San Ramon, Calif., who feels profanity is equally upsetting when it’s directed at her colleagues. “I feel like, oh, I have to be on my guard now. I need to choose my words carefully and not inflame the situation in any way.”

Gender-related insults and racial epithets are legally actionable under federal and state worker protection laws but profanity in the workplace — even excessive profanity — is not. This is probably because swear words are so commonly used today, and can be interpreted so many ways, including as humor or affection. A 2004 academic study in the Journal of Pragmatics determined that swearing can increase camaraderie in the workplace, and have a bonding effect among employees.

“Because it’s such an emotive form of language, it can be a positive thing if it’s used sparingly, strategically and appropriately,” agrees Dr. Jessica Cashman, a psychotherapist at the Center for the Psychology of Women in Seattle. “I cuss in session. My clients cuss in session. Sometimes in an emotional situation, no other words fit.”

Cashman, who describes herself as “quite the potty mouth,” believes swearing is an integral part of human communication and should not be dismissed as inappropriate in all professional situations.

“We can’t be professional about everything. Sometimes it can humanize a situation,” she notes.

Manhattan entrepreneur Charles Pooley disagrees. The founder and CEO of Workfolio, a personal website creation service, he instituted a strict no-profanity policy in 2009.

“I think people are a little bit taken aback at first because very few workplaces have a policy like this,” he says. “We’re just trying to build a culture of civility and respect. That’s what it’s all about.

“Cursing is a sign of insecurity. You’re using it to be accepted. Some people aspire to being Don Cheadle’s character in House of Lies. I think that’s a terrible role model. I’m super glad I’m the boss and can say, ‘we’re not doing that here.’”


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