My mother always advised, in her endearing Swiss accent: "Cursing makes you sound common, Annika."
However indignant I still am about the subsequent mouth washings, she was right.
When's the last time you heard "This printer can kiss my tuchus!" In today's workplace of relaxed business standards, those who don't use expletives actually stand out.
Further, companies are taking increasing notice of language and are starting to differentiate between employees feeling at home or like they're in a gym locker room.
Put a Lid on It
Some professionals are offering enthusiastic support to curbing office profanity. Others even lecture on it throughout corporate America, such as public relations professional James O'Connor, a self-proclaimed reformed cusser.
"Looks $%^#ing cold out there," was the first line of MGM's
, the film that marked a turning point for O'Connor.
The film poked fun at the Mafia's fondness for four-letter words, but O'Connor was still shocked not to see one reference to the language in the movie's reviews.
"During the liberation of the 1960s, everyone was saying, this is America, we are free to say what we want and do what we want," says O'Connor. "The rights of the individual
took precedence over the rights of the community."
While being on a first-name basis with the CEO or untucking your shirt is OK in today's workplace, says O'Connor, this lax attitude has brought a certain level of incivility along with it.
"Now in business when there's a problem, people yell and scream and swear ... and then take care of the problem," he points out.
It's nearly impossible for some to resist a poignant expletive when their computer crashes -- but cursing still packs a punch. Whether you work on the trading floor or a law office, O'Connor says some people will always be offended.
Incidentally, journalists rank among the top cussers, O'Connor says, because they can't swear in print. (Some of my colleagues might say that's a load of hogwash.)
While swearing feels good, admits O'Connor, it can make you look and sound bad.
Cursing relieves stress -- there's some truth to that -- but it creates stress for people that have to hear it," says O'Connor.
The main problem, O'Connor says, are not the words themselves, but the tone and negative emotions behind them, which create a hostile work environment.
"So much of cursing
involves expressing a negative emotion such as anger, complaining, or demeaning an employee," he says.
Unfortunately negativity, hostility and impatience fueled by cursing have also drowned out that essential can-do attitude that managers look for, O'Connor continues.
He points out that two of the biggest employee problems companies deal with today are sexual harassment and violence, often instigated by suggestive or aggressive language.
"If you're in an argument and you call someone an a-hole, someone will start swinging," O'Connor points out.
Interestingly, high-level executives breach that undefined cursing threshold the most, says O'Connor. And this can foster an unprofessional image for the entire company.
"If a boss is wearing a suit and tie, but using the f-word, he'll get
less respect," says O'Connor, who believes standards of cursing have also relaxed in the push for gender equality.
He recalls a male excusing himself to a woman at a conference for cursing in front of her; she replied with, "I don't give a @^#."
As individuals will often cuss just to blend in, O'Connor emphasizes the importance of making employees aware of the pitfalls of office cursing.
Cope, Don't Curse
O'Connor runs the Lake Forest, Ill.-based
Cuss Control Academy -- no snickering allowed -- which gives presentations to corporations about reducing the use of profanity.
Learning to distinguish between casual swearing and swearing instigated by anger or frustration and then learning to control those rash emotions is key, O'Connor points out.
"The only way you can stop swearing is to change your attitude about things," he says.
Limiting curse flow improves more than just your language; learn to control your emotions and the words will follow, says O'Connor.
And though sometimes corny, clever substitutes help as well (try "I'll be a monkey's uncle!"). Constantly using the same old curse words paints the speaker as dull and unimaginative.
The cost for a typical Cuss Control presentation is $1,500 in the greater Chicago area, and $2,500 outside that. Presentations and training programs can be tailored to address specific situations or businesses.
Cursing Doesn't Mean Charisma
Just because you can spew out four-letter words faster than a sailor doesn't necessarily mean you're a hard-hitter.
O'Connor points out that while Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, brags about his unfettered mouth, basketball coaching legend Dean Smith almost never swore, and the same goes for our own Jim Cramer.
"I'm shocked he never seems to slip with a swear word because he's so ... unscripted," says O'Connor of Cramer's on-air persona. "He's an example of how you can be very emotional and excited, without profanity."
But Janet Holmes, project director for the
Language in the Workplace Project run by the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies at Victoria University, New Zealand, is less adamant about curbing cursing everywhere. This study includes factories, government departments and commercial businesses in New Zealand.
In factory workplaces, says Holmes, where swearing is very common, cursing operates as a solidarity device and helps to create team spirit, when used in a jocular, nonaggressive manner.
However, she says in the white-collar workplace, the same joking would cause offense. "You have to look at the workplace in its own terms," she says.
Regardless, wherever you work, don't be kicking yourself in the derriere for letting four-letter faux pas ruin your image and good taste. Just watch what you say, and your co-workers will notice -- in a good way.