Swearing is pretty common in pop culture, but Ged Naughton cautions that letting the f-word fly in the workplace could be a FCLM (a freaking career limiting move).
In 1999, when Ewan McGregor got the part of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the second round of Star Wars films, a colleague sent an email to all 200 employees in our company called ‘Choose the Force.’
It was a parody of the opening voiceover of McGregor’s previous big hit about Edinburgh heroin addicts, Trainspotting. I can clearly recall the line “Choose a f***ing big light sabre.” The rest of the email had a similar tone and content. When it popped up in our inboxes, consecutive waves of hilarity, shock and panic swept around the building.
Fortunately, in those days, you could withdraw an email from anyone who hadn’t opened it, so my colleague received a dozen messages by return of email telling her to do that. It was later explained as ‘lack of judgment’ and after a chat with Personnel the matter was forgotten.
I was reminded of this when Peter Capaldi was announced as the new star of the Doctor Who TV series, spawning a new wave of mash-ups combining clips of the Time Lord with Capaldi’s previous role as Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It (and feature film spin-off In The Loop) hit the internet.
Tucker is a political spin doctor, infamous for his foul language. But the point of the character’s profanity is two-fold. Firstly, his character swears for the amusement of the audience, as in the classic “shut the f*** up” or “f*** the f*** off!” Apparently, the writers were allotted a number of swearwords per episode on a sliding scale—five or six minor curses could be traded for an f-word, while several f-words were worth one c-word, but no more than one per episode.
But the second reason is as a more pointed satire on the world of politics, where characters like Malcolm Tucker use every underhand method to defeat not just their opponents, but those they work alongside who might be perceived as a threat to their position and personal ambition.
Swearing becomes a tool for bullying any less forthright colleague or opponent into submission.
Everyone who uses colourful language makes judgments when to swear with family or friends. But are there times you can justify swearing in the workplace?
Three possible scenarios come to mind: to break the tension, to build camaraderie, or to lessen pain. (The NeuroReport Journal reports that surveys have shown swearing relieve the effects of physical pain, although overuse diminishes the effect.)
Even in these situations, the individual swearer must judge the use of language that others might find offensive carefully, and weigh his or her personal responsibility in the situation. You have to balance having respect for those listening, ponder the effects on your own personal integrity, and determine your place in the hierarchy. And conversely there are times when criticizing swearing is more a sign of prudishness than good taste.
But taking all this into consideration, the occasion when workplace swearing is most off-limits is when it used to bully. Going back to Malcolm Tucker, I find myself cringing and laughing when I watch The Thick of It.
I knew a local politician famous for his colourful idioms. A mutual acquaintance praised the way he could cut visiting bigwigs down to size by his continuous use of foul language. He wasn’t insulting them, but he kept up a constant stream of four-letter-words like a battering ram. I wondered if he was doing it deliberately and if so, whether he’d lost control. I’ve seen his colleagues—particularly women—cringing at what seemed to be needless profanity and sexual language. I once interviewed him to get some quotes for a promotional leaflet and it was impossible to pick out a single quote that didn’t have two or more swearwords in it.
Like all communications, the key to determining whether to let loose with expletives, particularly in the workplace, is to consider how they will land with your audience. And sometimes, it can be worse to try to get around those words without actually saying them. My brother, a primary school head teacher, told me how a pupil was once sent to him to be reprimanded for swearing. “What did you say?” he asked. “I said the R-word,” the boy replied. “Which R-word?” My brother asked, puzzled. “Arse,” said the boy.