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What the #%@&!?: The problem of profanity in the workplace

In the nineties, James V. O'Connor became fed up with the amount of swearing that he heard—in the media, in public places, in the office, and even from his own mouth. In response to what he considered to be a general decline in cultural civility, the public relations veteran decided to write a self-help book, Cuss Control: The Complete Book on How to Curb Your Cursing, to help himself and others adopt alternative forms of verbal expression. While writing Cuss Control, O’Connor also created the Cuss Control Academy and soon began receiving invitations to speak to employees at various businesses about the effects that foul language can have in the office.

Is profanity at work really such a bad thing?

“The real problem in the workplace is that swearing in general typically is negative: It’s complaining, criticizing, blaming people, name calling, being hostile and belligerent as opposed to cooperating and trying to solve the problems that occur everyday that make people want to swear,” said O’Connor. “In the good old days, you did the mature and professional thing when you had conflicts with somebody or there was a challenge you were facing. You may have been angry and upset, but you just dealt with it. Now people feel free to let it fly.”

But, sometimes, I asked him, don’t you just have to say “F-it” and get something off of your chest?

The answer is yes—sometimes. But the problem, according to O’Connor, is that people don’t just use bad language some of the time. It has become a ubiquitous way of communicating frustration and because we use profanity so often, it doesn’t pack quite the punch we intend when we say these words. Take the S-word for example. O’Connor points out during his seminars that because we use it so much, it can be applied to all of the five senses (i.e., “I feel like s***,” “You look like s***,” “This tastes like s***,” etc.).

“There are a lot of situations where the word is used out of lazy language because we can’t think of the right word,” he said. “S*** will always do and it’s also abrasive and negative.”

Equally overused is the F-word because we can utilize it as a noun, verb, or adjective. Although more abrasive than the S-word, it does not really express anything—nor does it emphasize our point when we use it too often.

“If you are the boss and you get upset and use the F-word, people are going to jump,” O’Connor said. “If you use that word all the time, it’s like ‘there he goes again’ and it loses its impact.”

Part Two: How to curb cussing in the office

Poll: Is there too much profanity in the workplace?

More Workplace Communication:
New York Goes to Work on VH1: Characteristics of difficult employees
Don’t call me Liz!: Elizabeth Becton incident illustrates workplace communication breakdown
Why texting and job hunting don’t mix
Characteristics of e-mail communication
Bosses afraid to communicate


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