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Foul Language at Work—To Confront or Not to Confront?

Dear David,

I’m in my sixties, and it bothers me when I hear people in the office using what I consider to be foul language, most often the “F-word”. This happens when they are on the phone having personal conversations and sometimes in internal office meetings. This language seems ingrained in the younger employees, and I doubt they have any idea it can be offensive. I have mentioned this to Human Resources, but they have more pressing concerns. Have we moved to the point where the “F-bomb” is just an accepted part of speech, even in the business environment?

Seeking Decorum

Dear Seeking,

What a wonderful question! You prompted me to dig into the science of swearing. Thanks, I think . . . Here is a bit of what I’ve learned:

First, norms differ depending on context and industry. Words that fit in the pool hall are unacceptable in church. Language that is okay on the construction site isn’t okay in the front office or with customers. Your colleagues who use profanity on the phone with their friends may not be mindful that they are still at work. Informal contexts including, perhaps, your internal office meetings also allow for more language leeway. And certainly our work environments have become more informal—in office design, decoration, clothing, hours, and language.

Second, speech evolves. Even the most offensive words tend to lose their power over time. Words that begin as verbal assaults that hurt, shock, and break taboos become less shocking with repetition. Profanity becomes street talk and enters the mainstream. Finally, profane words become commonplace—they lose their profanity. This evolution is seen in words such as bloody, blazes, and bull, which were considered vile in the 1800’s but are toothless today.

So where is the F-word on this progression? The Parents Television Council measured the frequency of different profane words used on TV shows. Their data showed a 2,409 percent increase in the F-word (bleeped, of course) over the five-year period from 2005 to 2010. If they measured F-word frequency again this year, I bet they’d find it has increased another 2,000 percent or more. It’s a word we now hear routinely.

Third, swear words can and have been categorized. The main categories are related to: religion, parentage, body parts and bodily functions, sex, and defamation of groups. Over the last fifty years or so, the curses and obscenities related to the first four of these categories, including the F-word, have lost much of their power to shock and offend. But the final category, which includes racist, homophobic, and other group-based slanders have become increasingly taboo. I guess I’ll call this progress. At least we are reserving our greatest social sanctions for words that actually hurt and defame other people.

Fourth, using swear words and obscenities is a perk of power.
In our society, swearing is more acceptable for bosses than subordinates; for men than women; and for adults than children. Think of it this way: swearing is likely to offend people. Can you afford to offend the people who will hear you? High status people are more likely to answer, yes.

Okay, enough with the science. While it certainly helps to understand the state of swearing in our culture, it doesn’t mean you are simply a victim without any power to influence your own workplace. What can you do when you find people’s language offensive? Really, you have two choices. You can either tolerate it, or you can speak up.

Tolerating: If you decide to tolerate the language, you will have to put your resentment behind you. The risk is that you will feel like a victim, and your annoyance will show on your face and in your blood pressure. Instead, decide that the offensive word means nothing to you—that it’s no longer offensive. The word has already lost its meaning to your colleagues who are using it. They don’t intend to offend you when they use it, so don’t take offense.

Speaking Up: Even though the F-word is everywhere and has lost much of its power to shock, you are still well within your rights to ask your colleagues to avoid it. But you need to make your request in a way that doesn’t offend them. Remember, the word means nothing to them, so your request may sound prudish or condescending. Begin with a contrast statement that clarifies you are NOT accusing them of being insensitive, rude, or obnoxious. Then make your request. It might sound something like this:

“In meetings and when you’re on the phone, you often use the F-word, and I can’t help but hear it. I know you don’t mean anything by it, but I don’t think it fits in our work environment. Would you mind making the effort to avoid it at work?”

Please let me know what you decide to try and how it works for you.


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15 thoughts on “Foul Language at Work—To Confront or Not to Confront?”

  1. Tammi

    The Foul Language at Work story reminded me of an experience a few years ago. I worked for a large company that conducted a survey designed to measure how closely the leadership at each site reflected the company’s well-defined values.

    My site came up shorter than they liked, so they formed a focus group to drive improvement. I was a member of the focus group. One of the first values we addressed was Respect for Others. My supervisor and others in leadership frequently used the F-word and other colorful language in meetings, in person, and when ever they felt passionate about something, or so it seemed. After discussion, the focus group informed site leadership that supervisors and leaders using such strong language in meetings and in conversation was intimidating to some employees, who were afraid to speak up because they didn’t want to encourage more outbursts.

    To their credit, site leadership took it to heart, installed a “cuss jar” on their boardroom table, and anyone who broke the anti-swearing rule had to contribute a dollar. I don’t remember what the money went for, but I distinctly remember that the swearing died out quickly. And the site achieved a higher score on their values survey the following year.

  2. Patricia Batten

    I think the suggested phrasing would not necessarily be received well as it is a judgement about what is acceptable in the office which may be inaccurate . I would suggest something a little more personal. Such as I know the f word is not meant to be inflammatory when you use it but when I hear it, maybe because I am older, I find it hard to get past and really hear what you are saying. I would appreciate if you could try and use it less. I do not mean to be rude ….
    Just my thoughts ..

  3. Amy Rex Smith

    I am also in my sixties and I do not appreciate use of the f-bomb in my presence. In my classroom (junior and senior level university students), we do “Class Rules” the first day of class and i get to give the first rule –No profanity.
    I have experienced that those who use the “f-bomb” do so because they have trouble expressing themselves, often due to a lack of enough English language vocabulary to select an adjective that more clearly describes their feelings and thoughts.

  4. Patti Bennett

    Dear David, I was really surprised by your comment to “Seeking” in regards to foul language in the office place. My company does not have a policy regarding foul language but I believe our company policy of harassment (which is a no tolerance policy) would lean toward addressing this issue more specifically should someone bring it up and I believe it would become a foul language free zone. I too am older and have been in professional environments for over 30 years. In all my years of reading about achieving success, the most common thread of successful people is building a strong vocabulary. Everything I have read points to this, that what a person thinks and says begins to make who that person is. As our societal moral body decays so does our country and our economy. Many successful leaders, Carnegie, Vitale, Canfield, Tracy, Ziglar, and others have repeatedly said if want to be successful then build a strong vocabulary and a strong command of the English language. You can gain more ground, respect and success by being a good speaker and writer and using a strong vocabulary ( a non-profane one) than by using words with only have shock value even if those words no longer have as much shock value by the upcoming generations. Recently, I heard my nephew refer to his girlfriend as his best “ho”. When I asked him about it he said it was an endearing term used by the younger ones these days. The reality is that term reflects the lack of respect and it shows how language minimizes the beauty and mystery of relationship between a man and a woman to nothing more than a cheap encounter. I spoke up to my nephew about it, not in a condemning way but just to try to make him think about what he as saying. I don’t know if it changed his mind or his language but I have seen how derogatory speech tears down women and men both young and old. I am sad that in essence you too have seemed to acccept this evolved language as now acceptable speech.

  5. Parker

    Intent and impact are important when discussing offensive or violent language. Work sites of employers should be free of harassing, offensive or abusive language, regardless of context.

  6. MamaZ

    I fine my co-workers $10 every time the f bomb comes out. I don’t collect, but I keep adding the amount up. Around $30 accumulated, they get the message.

  7. Jerry Hargett

    As a manager, I have set the standard that no foul language is to be used in meetings whether in person or on the phone. Its just not professional. If a manager uses foul language, then the managers reports will deem it as an acceptable behavior. This will carry over to interactions with fellow employees and with our customers which can lead to conflicts and misunderstandings. I have had the comment that “that’s just the way I talk and I really can’t help it sometimes” My response is that it is a choice and I ask them the question” Would you use the same language in the presence of your mother or a minister? The answer is always the same, “no”. If we accept foul language as normal, then we are saying that we cannot control ourselves or recognize when our words are inappropriate. Our customers and fellow employees need to know that we have respect for them and I believe this will carry over to a more productive and successful environment at work and at home.

  8. Keep it clean

    David, your response surprises me. I expect (and normally observe) higher levels of self control and civiilty from those higher in our organizations. This applies to the use of profane language in particular. We should promote higher expectations of civility in the workplace and tactfully challenge those who insist on routine use of profane language. Otherwise, it will be increasingly difficult to find safety in conversations with peers, subordinates, and superiors.

  9. Cricket

    Scenario: An employee is in their own office, having a casual conversation with another coworker, but the office door is open. This is not in a customer-service area; there are only coworkers in surrounding spaces. They are discussing a particularly belligerent customer, whom one refers to as a “F’g A-hole” – again, no customers around – just staff offices. A neighboring co-worker (immediate co-workers for over 10 years) overhears it, and rather than express their discomfort directly to their foul-mouthed neighbor, files an anonymous complaint to the HR Department.

    How would you expect an HR professional to handle that complaint?

    1. Albert

      This varies company to company. Our company recently changed the policy so that such behavior is only “actionable” it damages the person hearing it monetarily or prevents them from doing their job. Our mid-level managers use foul language and make jokes about disabled people, so nothing would be done about it.

  10. Linda McDonald

    I am the only woman, the office manager, that works in a European Auto Repair Shop. Every other word is the ‘f’ word. And even worse; Gda* I feel like they don’t respect me at all or appreciate my love for God. And even if I wasn’t a Christian, the ugliness is abrasive…to me. Would they use that language in front of their grandmother? Would they use that language in front of their pastor? I’ve even, playfully, asked them to think of me as their grandma! LOL Just because an ugly word has become part of so many peoples’ language; does that make it good? I’ve had to shush them before when a Mennonite customer was in the office! And then I think, ‘don’t I deserve as much respect as ANYONE? Maybe I’m in the wrong business? LOL But then, cursing is not necessary; is it? Can they not control their own mouths?

    1. Kristina Ransopher

      I live in a shared housing community for single mothers, so of course there are children here. We have certain roomates who argue on a regular basis, slamming doors, screaming and cussing at each other in the common areas and in their room loud enough for everyone to hear. When not arguing, profanity is used as often as any other word. Personally I think that words are just that…words. Some words are offensive why? is it because they actually are or is it because we are raised to believe they are? I also am still unsure (at 37!!…get with the program right?!! )of what I believe spiritually ,however there is a christian family here. Regardless though of what I may think or how I may feel, Moral character tells me that in public situations, stores, shared housing, work (especially in the presence of customers) it is inappropriate and unnecessary to use offensive language, this includes using God’s name improperly. Not only is it incredibly rude, inconsiderate and disrespectful…..i feel it tends to make you look like a fool…I still struggle with this though, because just like my opinion of the words themselves, my belief of this behavior as rude is also my opinion not really a fact..?! right?!?! IM SO CONFUSED!! that said, I too wonder if I should say something to the roomates….?

  11. Gabriel riah

    Nowadays, people are so used to speak offensive words as curse words; They think it is a normal thing to do because they live with it everyday. I am speaking here from spiritual point of view, and I say speaking profanity anywhere is NOT a good thing. The words of God are against it. Lord Jesus said “For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Some people may say to me, well, we live in a business world and the words of God is only for church. People do not know that this world is framed by the laws and commandments of God and judges the people from their very own thought and feeling. The Book of Genesis said “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. So the Lord said, “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” The Lord Jesus prophesied the time will come when lawlessness will abound and the love of many will grow cold. We live in the last days and people act as what the words of God has said about them. These people do not know there a spiritual cup which measures sins. When the Lord God sees it overflows, judgment comes. God is the God of peace; He only wants peace on earth. Speaking profanity is violence and the Lord God hates it. The GOOD NEWS is there will be restoration of all things, a time when all things will come back to the way it was as in the Garden of Eden. The BAD NEWS is the people who do not like ancient way of life, a time when all things and everyone are being governed by the laws and commandments of God, will be abolished from the earth and none of them will remain. People need to know the words of God is not a comic book, the Creator placed it on the earth as an instruction of life to teach everyone on how they must live in order to achieve a prosperous, healthy, peaceful, and long life as the tree that lives forever.

    Psalms 34
    Come, you children, listen to me;
    I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
    Who is the man who desires life,
    and loves many days, that he may see good?
    Keep your tongue from evil,
    and your lips from speaking deceit.
    Depart from evil and do good;
    Seek peace and pursue it.

    —The Spirit and the bride in Mount Zion,
    Heavenly Jerusalem,
    Gabriel riah

  12. Gentle Reminder

    Gabriel, there are two groups under two different fathers. One father was referred to by Jesus as the god of this world. The other is our heavenly Father. Our role is reconciliation by love. We are not here to judge the former; we are here to judge ourselves. When that judgement is turned outward (esp toward the former), the plank in eye own eyes blinds us and our effectiveness in reconciling is lost. It is not our job to be the Holy Spirit. The only sin for the former group that prevents them from receiving His Spirit (by whom alone we are able to overcome sin) is denying Jesus as Lord and Savior. We are commanded to “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give” not to be easily offended by others words or actions. If we cannot abide something as simple as the f word we cannot expect someone to feel safe enough to discuss a desire for forgiveness because let’s face it – the f bomb usually pales in comparison.

    To expect those who have never received Him not to curse or to change their behavior to make us more comfortable is not what Jesus did. He spent His precious time with them, fed them, and healed them. Let us remember that if we could have overcome sin on our own without the Holy Spirit, Jesus died for nothing.

  13. GH

    Being offended by mere language is a learned behavior, and frankly one that should be unlearned.

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