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Cursing at work has become acceptable–for some people

File this under: In a society with blurred boundaries, there are some things men can do that women still get chided for.

Cursing at work has become acceptable–for some people
[Source photo: paseven/Getty Images]

Lately the word fuck is everywhere. Even here, in the first sentence of this article on a well-respected media site.  

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A few months ago, the CEO of one of my clients used the expletive on a slide in a presentation to the whole company, and it surprised me. In May, Arizona Senator Mark Kelly said, “It’s fucking nuts to do nothing about this,” referring to gun violence after the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas. Then I noticed a string of LinkedIn posts by The New Yorker that included the word. One included a quote from an article about Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, another quoted former President Donald Trump in reference to comments made during the January 6 insurrection, and the third referred to sex in a fiction piece.  

Swearing has been around forever. It’s long been the fascination of linguists, writers, and English professors who study early curse words, their use in Shakespearian works, and more. When Fast Company last visited this subject in 2015, the report cited a study that found 57% of respondents admitted to swearing in the workplace, with differences depending on age, sex, and industry. Since then, there have been a number of studies suggesting swearing is a sign of intelligence and honesty, among other things. Netflix even has a series called The History of Swearing that premiered in 2021, the same year Virginia finally decriminalized swearing in public, a law that had been on the books since 1792. 

As a strong supporter of this versatile word (after all, how many words qualify as a verb, noun, adverb, and adjective?), I can’t help but smile and wonder: Is it finally acceptable to curse and even drop the so-called f-bomb in professional and public settings?  

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Today’s post-pandemic reality, the prevalence of social media, and 24/7 technology have blended the private, public, and professional. The increasing casualness of business—attire, protocols, and actual workplaces—was super-charged by the pandemic. Suddenly, we became intimately familiar with our colleagues’ bed-making prowess, feeding time for two- and four-legged family members, and home-decorating style (or lack thereof).  

The growing informality of business was well under way before the pandemic required an entire global workforce, including CEOs and other C-suite leaders, to work from home. After all, business casual dress really took off in the 1990s aided by Silicon Valley’s rise and the wealth it created. Their technology and apps also allowed work to bleed into every other part of your life, requiring you to take work calls from bed, while cooking, or maybe even in the bathroom. Add the last two years to that trend and whatever boundaries remained came tumbling down, clearing the way for people to speak publicly and professionally the way they previously may have limited to private time with friends or family.  

“TV was the first step of bringing public discourse into the home and putting the kind of thoughts publicly—blogs, social media, memoirs, etc.—that were previously reserved for the private sphere,” says Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of The New York Times bestseller Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work and numerous other books. “The private is going public and there’s no question social media has accelerated that trend.” 

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With people posting their innermost thoughts and experiences, sharing details of abortion, sexual harassment, alcoholism, or mental illness for public consumption, the lines between public and private are increasingly blurred. While that makes some people very uncomfortable, it also creates a safe space for people to be authentic and true to themselves, a value many companies and leaders profess to embrace. To some extent, the use of profanity is yet another aspect of today’s raw reality.  

In 2020, the Trustees of Boston University filed a U.S. trademark application on a student-led, public service campaign about campus safety during the pandemic. The slogan, “F*ck It Won’t Cut It,” was plastered on T-shirts, Instagram, billboards, TikTok, buses, and more. And while the university’s embrace of the phrase raised some eyebrows, the campaign paid for by the school and conceived by eight Communications students was specifically intended to speak the language of their peers and shock people into taking COVID-19 precautions seriously. It won national attention with presentations to the Centers for Disease Control and the American Marketing Association, as well as media coverage 

Many associate swearing with anger, and Tannen refers to this as representative of “the argument culture” these days where everything turns into a fight or aggressive situation. Certainly in the U.S. and some countries where there is less middle ground among political views this can be viewed as one predominant use for cursing but it’s hardly the only one.   

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Swearing can be intensifier that provides emphasis to things good and bad. “That was fucking amazing!” or “You are fucking brilliant!” seems to pack much more enthusiasm than saying, “That was amazing!” or “You are brilliant!” Somehow, you feel even more amazing or brilliant thanks to the addition of this seemingly crude adverb. (I’m going to ignore Stephen King’s chide, “The road to hell was paved with adverbs.” I’ve seen his Twitter feed—which also includes expletives—and I believe he’d agree here.) 

One of the clear positives of not filtering your speech is you look and sound like you, achieving the holy grail of authenticity so many people strive for. Studies show people are more willing to curse in front of those they feel comfortable with, which fosters increased connection. So, as long as you’re not swearing at someone or using profanity or any language to attack someone, you should be alright, right?  

Not necessarily. Business professionals and linguistics alike say it’s important to understand your organization, team dynamics, and expectations before letting the swear words fly at work. And even when it’s socially acceptable for some, that doesn’t mean it’s equally okay for everyone.  

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“Cursing that is acceptable and admirable in men is often seen as unacceptable for women,” says Tannen. “There’s an image of a tough guy that is enhanced with that kind of talk, but there’s no comparable image of a tough woman that’s going to be positive because there are still expectations about how women should look and talk.” 

Take for example this recent LinkedIn post by a woman I didn’t know. Mackenzie (Mack) Smith, when announcing her new role as communications manager at Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, said, “Let’s f*cking do this.”  

It didn’t take long for a number of men to comment on her post about her use of profanity, which quickly garnered a rearguard action from women and men alike defending her and responding to the so-called “tone police.” Smith, whose post received more than 28,000 reactions, said she used the word to show how excited she was about her new role. However, “What’s being called into question in some of those comments is my professionalism, and I’d suggest attacking a stranger on LinkedIn says more about their professionalism than my use of an implied profanity,” she noted in a follow-up interview. 

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There’s a term for this gender duality called the double bind, defined as a situation in which a person is faced with two irreconcilable demands that allow no appropriate response. For example, women are expected to be soft and nurturing, but leaders are expected to be strong and decisive. Or, in this case, women are expected to act more like male stereotypes to get ahead and then face criticism for not being maternal and ladylike.   

So, does that mean women shouldn’t swear? Hell no! It just means, like with so many other things in life such as walking alone at night, meeting a stranger for a drink, etc., you need to be more careful. Know your audience and understand the potential implications of speaking the way you prefer.  

Overall, as public lives and personal lives become increasingly intertwined, so will the rules that long governed each. After all, it used to be commonplace to not discuss money, religion, or politics at work. There are certainly realities and repercussions of these evolutions, good and bad, so it’s important to understand just how fucking authentic you can be at any given time or place.  

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Anne Marie Squeo is CEO and founder of Proof Point Communications, a boutique marketing and communications firm, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning business journalist.  


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