Thursday, April 13, 2017

When is Profanity Appropriate?

A CBS news story, How to get ahead at work; Learn how to cusscaught my attention recently. I had decorum on my mind when I saw the headline. I have increasingly been hearing profanity in professional settings. Advice to "learn how to cuss" intrigued me; I think most of us learned how to cuss early in life. The learning for adults is perhaps more likely focused not on "how to," but on when "not to" cuss. 

A few people who visit our offices do not display appropriate decorum, and their actions/words concern me. In a recent conversation about our offices, I was asked "when is it appropriate to drop an f-bomb in a professional office." The easy answer seems to me to be "never," and I would hope that everyone would feel similarly. 

A recent Huffington Post article listed 25 Reasons why the F-Bomb is Appropriate at Times. I read that list with great interest. Frankly, there is not a single instance on the list in which I could not think of something more appropriate to use than an "F-Bomb." I think it is not that this word is useful or incomparable to other words. I think we could all find better words with which to express ourselves. 


The CBS article seems to contradict my knee-jerk reaction of "never." It suggests that "profanity doesn’t have to be a liability in the workplace." Instead, it contends that profanity "can be a persuasive tool that conveys enthusiasm and honesty." And, believe it or not, some insist that there is science behind this, according to a "cognitive science professor," Benjamin K. Bergen, from the University of California San Diego. He suggests that cursing "can hurt and offend" but can also "unite and inspire."

Professor Bergen argues that "profanity is about expressing emotion." Since work places are "emotional too" the use of profanity is effective for engaging "with other people in more familiar ways, more engaging ways." He says that in a situation of "social closeness," the use of "profanity is more likely to be perceived as an indicator of a level of comfort and informality." That someone would swear around you is suggested to be a signal of acceptance and effectively collegiality. But, Bergen admits, it is possible that persons who use such words can be "perceived as out-of-control, unhinged, uneducated, unaware of social rules." 

Bergen contends that while in "same-sex groups," the use of profanity is equally likely by male and female speakers. However, the "strongest negative impact" is not when used within a group, but "across groups, and often across genders." Women find negative connotation in male swearing, and men find it in female swearing. While those perceptions may seem unfair, they exist. The professor's conclusions regarding gender raise interesting questions. Do people inquire regarding the gender of those in a particular group or conversation? Or, do people make assumptions about the gender of those around them based on physical appearance? 

Age groups are also believed to perceive offense differently. Professor Bergen says that millennials (born after 1980) are less likely to be offended by the words which offend Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), such as the "F-Bomb." Millenials, he says, are more likely to be offended by "slurs -- racial, ethnic, sexual slurs." For example, polling indicates that the "strongest 'F' word, according to millennials, is not a four-letter one," but "a three-letter one, a slur for homosexual people." Essentially, "younger Americans focus on words that are insulting, that denigrate particular groups," more than upon words offensive to Boomers, such as the "F-Bomb."

Professor Bergen says that there is a "democratization of media." He claims that profanity is so prevalent in media, including Internet games, that "you get desensitized to it." He argues that perceptions about language are fluid; that words and phrases are not themselves "inherently bad," but are bad in a particular moment and context. His argument seems to be that words gain acceptance through repetition and conditioning. 

In this final conclusion there seems common ground. The Huffington Post author has concluded that the "F-Bomb" is appropriate in daily living. The instances in which she finds it "appropriate" are interesting, and whether someone else would find those instances compelling or trivial is a subjective conclusion. But, my question was not whether the use of such language in one's home, like her example of "when you cannot fold the fitted sheets for your bed," is or is not appropriate. In essence, I really do not care if you drop an "F-Bomb" in your linen closet. 

My question is "when is it appropriate to drop an F-Bomb in a professional office." I have carefully considered Professor Bergen's thoughts, and the Huffington Post essay. I remain convinced that the only appropriate answer to this question remains "never." My reflection has not changed the conclusion that this language is not appropriate for a professional environment. It will not make me feel more comfortable with you, nor build collegiality between us. 

The fact supported by Professor Bergen's research is pertinent in three significant points. First, other people will decide whether they are offended by our language. We do not decide what offends others. The others make that subjective decision for themselves, and we may very well demean ourselves with poor word choices. Conversely, I am doubtful anyone thinks less of us when we fail to drop "F-Bombs" ("gee, if he liked me more he would have used the F-Bomb there"). 

What brings people to the Office of Judges of Compensation Claims? Conflict is the usual answer. What do they seek? They seek resolution of conflict, through convincing others to either compromise in a mediation setting, or to agree with their advocated positions in a hearing setting. 

When attempting to influence others, odds are not enhanced by offending them. Though Professor Bergen cites data that supports there may be acceptance of certain words within ages or groups, it seems impractical to assume that such acceptance is universal. People come from various backgrounds and are simultaneously members of various demographics. Is use of an expletive like the "F-Bomb" worth the risk of offense?

Second, Professor Bergen's contention is that profanity can "unite and inspire." He believes that dropping the "F-Bomb" in the work place can motivate positive behavior, that it can build a comfort and camaraderie. But, it is impossible to know the predilections and perceptions of your listener. The intended "compliment" of camaraderie may instead be perceived differently. The listener may not be complimented by your willingness to speak with your "guard" down, but may just be offended by your words and their subjective perception of your lack of couth. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it appears that different people have unique perspectives about words. One might be fine with the four letter "F-Bomb" and yet put-off by the three letter "F-Bomb." Remember, your listener will be an amalgamation of her/his perceptions, beliefs, and values. The person whom you are trying to convince or persuade may or may not share your conclusions or feelings about words. Your intended message may or may not come through as you wish, and may be a distraction. 

I return to the initial premise. When is it appropriate to drop the "F-Bomb" at the Office of Judges of Compensation Claims? The answer is "never" and it does not matter which "F-Bomb" you mean. Using language that has the potential (not probability) to offend the audience is not likely to move the day in your direction. This is true if you are dropping such expletives in the lobby, a private mediation room or hearing room. Once the listener is offended, your chances of persuading them is potentially compromised. If you find you must drop the "F-Bomb," I recommend doing it in your linen closet at home. 

Recently, I wrote Challenges in Policing Appearance. It it, I suggested that "if your appearance is professional and clean, it will demonstrate respect for the process, your clients, and the people (employees and employers) that it is meant to serve." Likewise, I would suggest that if your language and demeanor are professional that will also demonstrate respect for your client and those around you. If you language is perceived as abusive or foul, you risk alienating your audience and complicating your odds of success. 

If you have an affinity for the "F-Bomb" (either of them) or other potentially degrading or insulting language, embrace it. But, for the sake of the others that visit and use our public facilities, please embrace (and use) that language somewhere else (at home in your linen closet). Your listeners will appreciate the respite, and your chances of persuading and prevailing are enhanced.


After this post was published, this interesting story about college professors, tenure, and foul language came to the fore and is perhaps of interest in this context.

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