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Can You Say “Boobies” at Work”

Can You Say "Boobies" at Work"

Recently I mentioned to a corporate trainer that I thought she would be more effective if she adjusted her language a bit while facilitating workshops. “I understand you want to emphasize key points and grab their attention at certain moments, but I think you could do that without swearing,” I said gently without shame or judgment (well, maybe a little judgment).

Her response? Complete shock and denial.

“I would never swear or curse in a workshop!” she stated adamantly.

So I walked her through the specifics I had observed in several workshops. And she looked even more frustrated as she insisted “crap isn’t a swear word!”

As both our personal and professional cultures have become more casual, we’ve come to a place where there are only a few distinct words that virtually everyone agrees are forbidden (the N-word, etc.) and coarse language has become as commonplace as jeans on Fridays.

For some, cursing is a power play. For some it is an easy attention grabber. For some it is merely habit. And some professional women take a perverse pride in their use of coarse language, as if it makes them tougher and stronger and proves they are just like “the boys.”

Note: I’ve detailed below the downside of professional cursing for everyone from the C-suite to the shop floor. But there are some truly insightful comments from readers below. Be sure not to miss those.

The Downside of Professional Cursing

There is no question that language standards in the workplace have relaxed significantly over the past ten years. Several recent studies indicate that the pervasiveness of obscene language is much more common in high-stress jobs, but the most common correlation is the language of business leaders; if the leaders use coarse language, it should be no surprise that others follow suit.

Often people will not express their negative opinions of those who swear. They wil not mention that it bothers them or is in bad taste. They’s don’t want to “make waves” so they ignore it, even if they are uncomfortable. But the reality is that a person using vulgar language tends to be viewed as:

  • Immature
  • Lower class
  • Rude
  • Lower in intelligence
  • Impatient
  • Undependable
  • Less educated
  • Thoughtless
  • Careless

…and the list goes on. Foul language can cause people to worry that someone may not be able to control his or her emotions and handle situations with the necessary tact and diplomacy. They might question the character of the person who is swearing, regarding the individual as not professional.

But rarely do these people get direct, candid feedback. So they continue without being aware of the impact on their career. And there are a number of other ways in which people with poor social awareness or sensitivity can make others uncomfortable:

  • Inappropriate Jokes – Whether a joke is “inappropriate” may be completely subjective, but that is part of the challenge. Even those who laugh may secretly cringe in their minds. Or those who themselves do not find a joke offensive may still feel uncomfortable because they know that others may be uncomfortable. Humor is an important element of our interpersonal relationships, but in the workplace keep it clean.
  • Over-sharing Personal Information – When you share deeply personal information – about yourself or others – this can be both inappropriate and i some cases, illegal. Even sharing information that doesn’t fall outside legal boundaries can be perceived as a violation of trust and is inappropriate in a business setting.

So if upon reflection you think you might have crossed the line on occasion (or frequently) this is perhaps a wake up call for you. Like it or not, the words that come out of your mouth have an impact on how people perceive you.

If you know someone who crosses the line, do them a favor and address it directly (or forward this article to them). While they may initially push back or be surprised at the feedback – because no one else has cared enough to be up front with them – you are in fact doing them a huge favor.

And how did the corporate trainer who insisted that “crap isn’t a swear word” eventually respond? After first insisting there was no problem, she talked to a few close friends and luckily they all acknowledged that she had a “potty mouth” reputation. Amazingly, this was actually a surprise to her. But it was what she needed to be prompted to make a change. I haven’t heard a coarse word of phrase from her in the past 6 months.