Profanities, swear words, cuss words, or expletives happen in many of our everyday lives and in the workplace, too. Whether due to frustration, anger, stress, joy, they slip out. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
However, traditional standards of “professionalism” tell us that swearing is a big no-no at work and doesn’t reflect well on team members. Some organizations have zero tolerance for swearing. This is not practical or fair.
We cannot just make a super generalized blanket statement that all swearing at work is "bad." Nor can we just give the automatic go-ahead that all profanity is “good.”
There is a lot of complexity and nuance within this topic. While we must counter the stereotype that people who swear are rude and uneducated and push for language beyond “the Queen’s English,” we must also consider that everyone’s relationship to swear words is different and can run deep.
This resource will challenge the notion that swearing doesn’t belong in the workplace and delve into how it can belong in respectful, conscious, co-created ways.
To be clear, we are not expressing that team members should swear AT and harass each other. In our humble opinion, we rarely condone directed swearing. Swearing AT someone should be reserved for instances where a team member really messed up. Otherwise, we feel it does more harm than good.
Less Polish, More Human
Swearing is not just a taboo topic. Dominant groups have weaponized “professionalism,” civility, and respectability politics to label groups experiencing marginalization as unintelligent, less than, or lower class when they swear. Prohibitions around swearing continue to create more intense stratification and disconnection between corporate and frontline workers and less mobility between these roles.
Sticking to the status quo and uncritically aggrandizing the “Queen’s English” is the norm in many workplaces and industries, and it’s easy to hold biases against interactions full of swear words and slang.
For example, we titled a recent blog “F*ck Professionalism” because we thought it better-captured people’s visceral and justified struggles with outdated professional standards. At the same time, the use of the expletive posed a direct challenge to the antiquated ideals that arbitrarily inhibit DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion). We encourage people to engage with the perspectives contained in that blog in good faith, not to prematurely dismiss our ideas by sensationalizing one word in the title.
In North America, casual swearing is often commonplace when we think deeply about the reality of workplace culture and the people within it. It’s just part of a regular day. Research shows that swearing makes up around 1% of someone’s daily vocabulary, the average person swears around 80 times a day, and the use of swear words is on the rise. Swearing is sometimes a specific vocal tic connected to Tourette’s Syndrome, resulting in compulsive, repeated swear words in someone’s speech. Swearing is all around us and rarely directly connected with someone’s work performance. Scientists have discovered that even animals like chimps swear, so why can’t we?
The bottom line is it’s impractical and irrational to tell people to leave swearing behind when they come to work.
Many studies have disproved the pervasive myth that swearing indicates someone’s dishonesty or unintelligence. Instead, they show that people who swear are frequently more honest and have higher emotional and linguistic intelligence. Furthermore, studies have shown that swearing can reduce pain and boost strength. Swearing can also be a healthy emotional release for folks to channel their anger or frustrations rather than repressing them. Swearing has been demonstrated to increase the persuasiveness and impact of a message. Additionally, swearing is linked with an 18% higher likelihood of making a sale. In the 10,000 instances of swearing cataloged by researchers Janschewitz and Jay, they rarely observed any negative consequences.
Occasionally using this “taboo” language can knock down barriers of strict professionalism, making space for more human interaction and lighter conversation. In other words, by cursing around your co-workers, you can establish a friendlier atmosphere and develop camaraderie.
One of our team members expressed the following thoughts regarding curse words at work:
“For me, hearing a curse allows me to shake off a sense of expected behaviour and decorum; it allows me to be more true to who I am. There's a bit of unmasking that happens when language isn't put through a filter of what is deemed appropriate at work versus not.”
Injustice is Swear Worthy
Besides peer socialization, swearing can show we mean what we say or express our emotions. (It doesn’t mean we have limited vocabulary!)
When we bring more of ourselves to work in times of political/social inequity and trauma, it’s understandable that things will get heated. And that’s OK. For example, in our DEI workshops, many participants swear when expressing their passion about the issues in focus and discussing people who have been harmed.
If we claim to create spaces where everyone is welcome, we must allow language outside of the “Queen’s English” employed to communicate deep pain, life-long frustrations, or emotional trauma. Attachments to formalities should not stifle empathy or abruptly end vulnerable conservations. Policing people’s chosen expressions to describe their unique experiences is counterproductive to the essence of DEI work.
We cannot separate social injustice and heightened political turmoil from work in today's climate. And sometimes, when we have conversations about inequity at work, swearing happens. So let’s make space for it.
Tone Policing and Prohibitions on Swearing
Whether they dropped an f-bomb or not, marginalized people are often considered angrier when discussing challenging, emotionally-driven topics. Jeffrey Boakye describes how Black people express their emotions; they are often told something along the lines of “Could you tone it down a bit? You’re being a bit aggressive. You need to be a little softer. You’re passionate, I understand, but your manner can put people off. It’s a bit intimidating.” These types of comments are methods of tone policing.
Tone policing is an act of dismissing someone’s ideas if they are delivered in an angry, frustrated, sad, fearful or otherwise emotionally charged manner. In other words, it focuses on the emotion behind a message rather than the message itself.
Dominant groups sometimes use tone policing as an oppression tactic to systemically keep marginalized people (and the issues they raise) silent. So, it’s no surprise that women, Black people, and especially Black women are no strangers to this phenomenon.
Prohibitions on swearing are deeply connected to the inequities of tone policing. It’s not OK to dismiss a team member's capacities, contributions, or insights because they include swear words in their speech without engaging with their ideas or feedback. Tone policing is anti-dialogue, anti-debate, infused with bias, and laced with anxieties regarding power and change.
Furthermore, marginalized team members may feel pressure to suppress who they are and how they speak for their safety. For example, Black teammates who speak Black Vernacular English (BVE) often feel pressure to code-switch to a dominant English dialect at work to be taken seriously and avoid exclusion. Racialized teammates, in general, are far more likely to be labelled offensive when using swear words. Women may avoid swearing due to a double standard that makes them six times as likely to be considered obscene than men. Language learners often feel pressure to downplay their accents because of concerns that they will be viewed as unintelligent. This is in addition to fear of marginalization for swear words in their primary language.
Rachel Cargle, a writer, philanthropic innovator, and social entrepreneur, shared a remarkable post on Instagram that makes some crucial points on the issue of swearing and tone policing. First, swearing should not be considered harsher than real-life tragedies. Second, white feelings should not matter more than Black lives and experiences. And third, dominant groups should not dictate that anti-oppression work can only be done on their terms and in a tone that they find palatable.
What Do Your Favourite Profanities Mean?
Not all swear words are created equal. In fact, some have more complicated histories and oppress certain groups of people. It’s essential to learn about the etymology/ontology of the swear words you use to ensure you’re not reinforcing shitty things.
The examples we provide below come from English dialects in North America (swear words will differ from culture to culture and country to country.) Check out JumpSpeak’s list of 26 English swear words for a few other English-speaking countries’ swear words.
“Bitch” literally means female dog. However, it is often used to degrade and discriminate against women or criticize them for asserting power. When used against men, it can reproduce sexist beliefs and work to emasculate them by suggesting the man in question be (gasp!) feminine in any way.
At the same time, some women have started to reclaim “bitch” as a term of strength and solidarity in recent years.
Thus, we must be aware of how someone uses the word, their intended meaning, and how others receive it. While some of us may be able to own being a “bitch” as a moment of power and reclamation, there are many who sure as hell would not be okay with someone calling them that.
Indeed, “bitch” is probably the best example of the complexity, nuance, and context tied up in swearing.
“Ass,” meaning “buttocks,” can also mean silly or mean-spirited. However, it’s never OK to use this word to mock, gawk at, shame, or police someone’s body - even if you’re friends. Friends can still reinforce fatphobic and body shaming stigmas onto each other. People should also be cautious in using the word “ass” in ways that contribute to stigma relating to anal sex and the LGBTQIA2+ community.
“Bastard” literally means an illegitimate child. Historically, people consider it a bad word because a child out of wedlock is “immoral.” This word acts as yet another mechanism for demonizing women. People often associate “bastard” children with “overly” sexually active women. “Bastard” shames family models outside the nuclear model, such as foster families, blended families, plural families, and chosen families.
Cunt, Pussy, & Snatch
“Cunt” and “pussy” literally mean vagina. These two words have similar cultural connotations as “bitch.” Many women have reclaimed them to express empowerment and solidarity, while others feel that “cunt” is the most aggressive and worse thing one can call a woman. Use of these words requires awareness of one's relative privilege, identity, and power.
“Pussy” has a legacy of being used as a mechanism to reinforce the idea that women are weak and less than. “Cunt” is used to express that someone is being incredibly mean, aggressive, rude, or amoral.
“Bitch,” “pussy,” and “cunt” all have much more profound significance concerning policing gender, more so than other swear words on this list. They come with a host of misogynistic connotations and often degrade or surveil femininity.
Use of the words “pussy,” “cunt,” or “snatch” can also be potentially triggering for transgender or non-binary people who have gender dysphoria related to their genitals.
Damn is a word that originated from some religious beliefs and is most often used to condemn something.
It can also be an exclamation of excitement (“Damn! That's great!”), or as an emphasizer on other words in the sentence ("There's not a damn thing to be done now"), or as an adverb ("Let's have a damn good day!"), or to just not care ("I don't dive a damn.").
Be mindful of people of faith, particularly Abrahamic religions, when using this word, which could be considered disrespectful or trivializing to their sincerely held beliefs around the afterlife.
Dick, Cock, & Prick
“Dick” and “cock” refer to the penis. These words have also been associated with negative behaviour such as being mean, insensitive, or “bad.” Using these words to describe someone as “bad” can be understood as connecting someone who has a penis with being someone who is “mean” or “insensitive.”
These associations can contribute to the stereotype that men are inherently “bad,” perpetuating expectations aligned with toxic masculinity. It also means to mess around ("That person is always dicking around") and to describe nothing ("You don't mean dick to me.")
The words “dick” or “cock” can potentially trigger transgender or non-binary people who have gender dysphoria related to their genitals.
Douchebag or Douche
A “douchebag” or “douche” is a jerk or a mean person. However, technically speaking, it’s a small syringe used for vaginal washing. It can also be used for enemas. This means that another word associated with women also has negative connotations. Although this may not be as insulting as some other women-centred swears, bringing this word out of commission.
“Fuck” is of Germanic origin and for a long time just meant sexual intercourse. Fuck can be used as a verb, an adverb, a noun, an adjective, a modifier, an intensifier or even an interjection. It’s probably our most malleable swear word ever. It was only about 300 years ago that we made the transition from “I want to fuck tonight” to “fuck you for betraying me” and “I’m so fucking excited.”
People should not use the word fuck to make unwanted sexual advances or harass someone sexually.
“Mother fucker,” sometimes abbreviated as “mofo,” is usually considered highly offensive and rarely used in the literal sense. Usually, it refers to a mean, despicable, or vicious person or any particularly difficult or frustrating situation. Alternatively, it can be a term of admiration (“badass motherfucker”) or as emphasis to denote an extreme ("It's colder than a mother fucker outside.") Interestingly, Norman Mailer was particularly fond of using this profanity.
“Shit,” which originated in old English, literally means fecal matter. However, that doesn’t mean it’s always a bad thing. People use this word in many ways today to describe nonsense/lies (“You’re full of shit!”), something of little value (“This video game is a piece of shit!”), a despicable person (“You’re a shit-head!”), people who cause problems ("Shit disturber!"), something really good ("This new coffee place has some good shit!"), being scared ("You scared the shit out of me!"), or as an exclamation of disbelief ("That person won a leadership award - no shit!!")
Context, Context, Context
A part of bringing a DEI lens to conversations about swearing is remembering that many dimensions of a person may influence how they respond to swearing. Someone’s comfort level with swearing depends not just on their personality and rigid standards of professionalism but also their cultural background and trauma history.
For example, swearing can be contrary to one’s cultural customs. Some swear words are harmful based on religious practice or belief. Some English swear words may be confusing or challenging for those who do not speak English fluently or are still learning. Swearing can also cause triggers for someone if they have experienced harassment, forms of assault, and/or manipulation.
For some, swearing can develop rapport. For others who have harmful relationships to swearing, it can reduce the chances for building trust and comradery. This is why context is so important. Swearing that hurts others should be reevaluated, yet swearing that simply invites accusations of “impoliteness” is in a far greyer area, and we want folks to dig deeper.
We do not encourage a one-size-fits-all approach to swearing in the workplace, but rather a strategy that considers the harms of tone policing and code-switching; the importance and benefits of linguistic diversity; and the imperative to treat every teammate with dignity and respect.
This is Where We Draw the Line
There is no hard and fast rule about when and where swearing should be acceptable, but there are some moments where swearing can make things a whole lot worse.
In instances of workplace discipline, swearing can heighten intensity, lead to violence, increase inequity, and in some cases, turn into harassment. Devan Graham describes this type of swearing as “Directed Swearing” and says it is inappropriate no matter the context. Adding swearing to a situation that could be avoided can make matters worse. These moments are times when we need to carefully consider how our words may be received, interpreted, or felt.
Moreover, all language, including swear words, that is designed or deployed to denigrate, humiliate, marginalize, or degrade non-dominant groups or people, in general, is unacceptable.
So, What Do We Do?
- Zero tolerance for swearing in a workplace is not realistic or even a goal we would ever strive for. Workplaces have been successfully sued for wrongful termination when firing someone for non-abusive swearing. Instead, consider developing a guideline on “Directed Swearing” (i.e. we can’t swear AT people, it’s not okay). Check out our Directed Swearing Guide for further insights. Furthermore, you may want to develop an “Inclusive Swears” guide so everyone’s clear on words that are NOT OKAY within your workplace guidelines. This can foster conversations about the kind of culture your organization wants to build or maintain.
- Your swearing guide can be folded into broader community guidelines around using inclusive language. Inclusive language is about considering lived experiences different from your own and communicating in the least biased and most affirming ways possible (e.g. Using “you all” instead of “you guys” to promote gender inclusivity).
- Work on developing safer spaces for team members to communicate and create a dialogue. (This can happen through prioritizing psychological safety.) By feeling comfortable communicating with each other directly, we can create space to understand each other and discuss solutions for harmful situations. For example, if team member A communicates to team member B that their swearing goes against their religious views, and then team member B tells team member A that their swearing is a release valve for their experience of racial marginalization, they may come to a judgement-free understanding of one another. They then have created the space to discuss solutions to how they can interact while respecting each other's boundaries around swearing.
If it wasn’t clear before, swearing at work is incredibly complicated. Willingness to direct needless swearing at people without power signifies something is wrong with your culture that needs attention and interventions. Yet, the willingness to curse out harmful actions can often be a method for addressing injustice, inequity, and harm. Like any other difficult conversation, the topic of swearing requires us to dig in. It can be a lot of effort, but it’s fucking worth it!
This resource is not meant to be a static guide, but rather a compilation and reflection of our learnings to date. Everything changes - from technologies and innovations to social norms, cultures, languages, and more. We’ll continue to update this resource with your feedback; email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with suggestions.
About The Author
This blog was written collaboratively by members of the Feminuity team.
Give Credit Where Credit's Due
If you wish to reference this work, please use the following citation: Feminuity. (2022). "Swearing Should Call Out Inequity, Not Create It: A Guide to Swearing in the Workplace"