What's With the *#@*$?* Profanity at Work?

Liz Ryan

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A recent WorldWIT member survey showed that eighty percent of respondents had seen a rise in the use of profanity at work. That's no secret - no one would have guessed that things were headed in the opposite direction.

The survey respondents also said that profanity is one way that people deal with stress at work. Well, we all know that work is stressful. But how do you deal with a workplace where the language is a little stronger than you’re comfortable with?

Here are some tips for dealing with profanity at work:

1) Everyone has his or her own comfort level with strong language. The best way to make your own tolerance level known is to comment (gently) when you hear something that’s just too harsh for your ears. You can say, “Yikes!” or “Eek!” or make some other exclamation, and then gently add, “Can I bother you to find a less colorful expression?” Ninety-five percent of people will get the hint.

2) It’s important to distinguish between profanity that is used generally to let off steam, and profanity that is directed at a person. Its one thing to say, “This situation sucks, ” (a word which many people don’t even view as profane anymore) and another thing to say, “Joe Smith sucks in his job. ” Even if you don’t mind mild profanity in general, it’s perfectly appropriate to say “You know, that’s not really a great way to talk about a colleague. ”

3) If you are overwhelmed by very strong language in your workplace, speak to your manager. People who are offended by profanity very often feel hesitant to speak up, because they fear that they won’t be viewed as sufficiently hard-core and tough about their jobs. Companies are becoming more diverse, and part of diversity is embracing all sorts of communication styles and values. No one should have to work in an F-this, F-that environment if they’re not comfortable.

4) If you use more profanity at work than you’d like to, try cultivating a milder expression in the place of your most-often-used cuss words. Here are a bunch of tried-and-true substitutes: Judas Priest! Oh, fudge! Oh, sugar! If you fear that you’ll sound like Samantha from “Bewitched, ” don’t worry; there are worse things. Better to be viewed as Tinkerbell than as a potty mouth.

5) Take a quick ‘pulse’ survey in your office to find out what level of profanity is comfortable with your co-workers. HR or your manager can construct a quick online survey using Zoomerang.com, and find out where people’s comfort level lies. Some offices steer clear of even “hell” and “damn;” others stop at those two expressions. In some offices, the use of the long form of ‘mofo’ is as common as the use of ‘ this’ and ‘that. ’ Find out what makes your teammates comfortable and what makes them edgy - then you can adjust your office norms to that standard.

Liz Ryan is a former Fortune 500 HR executive, a workplace expert and the CEO of WorldWIT, the online network for professional women at http://www.worldwit.org She lives in Boulder, Colorado.


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