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by Cathy Vandewater | June 05, 2012


Informality rules most of our offices, but how laid back can our language get?

You may enjoy sneakers and T-shirts at work, but F-bombs and S-words are a little less straight-forward. Is it okay to joke around with bad words, in an informal setting? Can a well-timed curse win your respect, even at a serious meeting?

There are really no hard and fast rules for profanity, and every workplace is different. But a few guidelines can help you play safely with risky words:

1. Keep your ears open

Before letting any colored language slip, listen to others—does anyone else swear at the office? If so, to what degree—a gentle "dangit!" or a full on F-bomb?

Take note of who's saying what. Bosses may get away with more, but you shouldn't necessarily follow their lead. When peers curse, what kind of reaction do they get? Withering looks, or laughter? Use these as your cues.

2. Watch yourself in mixed company

And by mixed, we mean "internal" vs. "external." This goes for others' clients as well as your own. You never know what other people may be sensitive about, so it's much better to err on the professional side than to offend anyone.

That said, some people appreciate a little loose talk as a gesture of solidarity. Just be sure to confine your rowdier conversations to lunches or dinners outside the office—and away from conservative coworkers or other clients.

3. Consider the context

There's a difference between, ahem, "colorful" language and verbally abusive language. While you may feel comfortable using a few four letter words for emphasis or in jokes, avoid applying them to highly emotional charged situations --like reprimanding another employee or venting about a client.

Rough language can escalate an already tricky situation out of control (or have it appear that way to all the wrong people). That can lead to the loss of respect and trust from coworkers, or worse, bosses and clients. And if your conversation is accidentally overheard by the wrong party, it will be a lot harder to take back expletive-ridden insults than basic complaints.

4. Choose your moment

Trying to whip your team into a motivated frenzy? A well-timed curse can show your intensity of emotion without a high chance of bothering anyone. Likewise, a quiet, one-on-one conversation may benefit from a cuss by demonstrating your openness, and again, intensity of feeling.

A good rule of thumb is positive usage for a group environment ("We did blanking great!") and more serious cursing when you're alone with someone ("I think so and so is BS-ing us"). And of course, being familiar enough with your coworkers to know their threshold for raunch.

5. Don't put it in writing

If cursing in speech is a little risky, dropping S-bombs in emails is doubly so. You may know that the person you're corresponding with is okay with profanity, but one mis-click of the forward button, and your conservative boss may be the one reading your choice language.

If you must swear, do it in person—especially if anger's involved. Those emails will retain their original bite, while memories of a tough conversation can fade. Don't let the permanence of written words you bite you in the expletive.

Do you ever swear at work? Does it bother you if others do? Speak up in the comments section!

--Cathy Vandewater,

Read More:
A Curse Upon Your Career (WSJ)
Drink the Darn Kool-Aid: In Defense of Enthusiasm at Work
Are you Whining Yourself Out of a Job?


Filed Under: Workplace Issues