There are infinite reasons to want to utter profanity these days: The cost of everything is rising, the pandemic is lingering into year three, the link to that videoconference you can’t miss doesn’t work. During months at home, we got comfortable and said what we wanted—even when it was a four-letter word.
Some of us are bringing that authenticity, fresh perspective and casualness back to the office. An analysis from Sentieo, a financial intelligence platform, found that expletives in transcripts of quarterly earnings calls, investor conferences and shareholder meetings rose to a five-year high in 2021, when 166 such transcripts contained foul language. In the first three months of this year, 50 transcripts contained expletives, up from 42 last year.
“Business formality is on the way out,” says Nick Mazing, Sentieo’s director of research. Back in 2020, he noticed a lot of sober language in transcripts, and talk of gratitude.
Now, many appear to be saying f—it.
Still, deploy a curse word at the wrong moment, or in the wrong company, and it can swiftly derail your career. Nancy Halpern, a leadership consultant who helps executives navigate office politics, recommends looking two rungs above you on the organizational chart to determine what language is acceptable at your company. Try to decouple swearing from complaining, she says, so you don’t come across as doubly negative.
Avoid dropping curse words in email or while addressing a large group—you don’t want the comments to be shared widely, where they could lose context. And do it sparingly.
“Don’t let it be default,” she says. “Let it be by choice.”
Done right, swearing can provide an emotional release, psychologically gird you to withstand pain and cement team ties, says Danette Ifert Johnson, the provost of Kalamazoo College who has researched swearing at work.
“It kind of feels that we’re suddenly on a very human, raw, honest level,” Agnes Naseniece, who works in human resources in Calgary, Canada, says of sharing a moment of profanity with colleagues.
The 31-year-old bonded with one co-worker when she found him muttering swear words under his breath by a malfunctioning printer at the office. When her team was recently exhausted, trying to figure out new company software, they peppered in some F words, and it served as a reminder they were all in the same boat, muddling through as best they could, she says.
Her rules: She’s never the first one to let an expletive slip, and she never does it in front of bosses.
In meetings, Jennifer Bosworth will express what she really thinks (for example, this is $%@*-ing $%!#) under her desk in American Sign Language. A former interpreter, the community-college administrator finds it to be a safe way to vent her frustrations among those who might not be fans of profanity.
In smaller conversations with people she trusts, Ms. Bosworth lets her favorite curse word—the one that starts with f—fly. She’s noticed others are turning to spicy language too. Recently, one of her higher-ups used the word “damn” on a conference call.
“I almost unmuted and went, ‘Hell yeah,’” she says.
A well-placed expletive can cut through tension. McKenzie Mortensen Ross, who lives in Gig Harbor, Wash., and works for a semiconductor company, is often the only woman in the (virtual) room during meetings.
“I’m part of the scenery until someone, for example, drops an F bomb,” she says.
Then all of a sudden, there’s a chorus of apologies directed her way. Her response?
“You never have to f—ing excuse yourself to me,” she tells them. Everyone laughs; the room relaxes.
Ms. Ross, who has a bomb-shaped paperweight on her desk emblazoned with an F, loves the taboo nature of four-letter words.
“There’s something visceral about it,” she says. “It just feels good.”
But she says it’s the swearer’s responsibility to read the room, and immediately apologize if a listener bristles.
“If there is a situation where you maybe cross the line, just own it,” she says. “Things don’t always land.”
Mark Troy knows from experience. The 61-year-old, who recently retired after a 35-year career in law, can still recall the mistake he made more than a decade ago, when he stood up in front of all the partners at his new law firm and made a joke about a case, punctuated by the F-word.
“This haunted me,” he says.
At the time, all he heard was laughter. But as the years passed, it became clear that some senior partners had taken umbrage. They mentioned it to him at firm events. They didn’t pass along cases to him.
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Mr. Troy had thought that using the word would make him seem laid-back and funny. Instead, “the other partners remembered me for being a smartass and snarky,” he says.
Some didn’t want to work with him, he says, adding that he took care not to swear at work after that.
Wil Reynolds tried to cut back. Years ago, the chief executive of digital marketing agency Seer Interactive came across feedback from attendees of a conference where he had spoken. They complained his language was unprofessional. So he cleaned up his act for his next few appearances, only to find himself stumbling on stage—pausing randomly, not communicating his points clearly.
The 45-year old had grown up with comedians like Richard Pryor playing in the background at his home in New Jersey. “You have to be willing to accept that some people have been raised in a way you weren’t,” he says.
Mr. Reynolds went back to the swearing, but he only does it to describe something positive, like an employee who’s crushed it on a project.
To him, swearing is the same as the dreadlocks in his hair or the flip flops he wears on stage at conferences. It makes him feel like himself—confident, comfortable, able to do better work.
“If I’m kicking ass at my job, shouldn’t that be what it’s about?” he says.
Write to Rachel Feintzeig at [email protected]
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