Dropping F-Bombs: Does Office Cursing Help or Hinder a Career?

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Books and films such as Too Big To Fail and Wall Street have affixed in many minds the reputation of the financial industry as a den of profanity. So while nearly everyone does it (95 percent admit to swearing in front of colleagues), will cursing at work hurt or help your chances of getting promoted?

Strong language has many intents; from venting frustration to bullying a colleague. Among friends, it can be entertaining—even funny—and act as a release and help to make light of a potentially threatening person or situation.

A Warning Sign

Cursing can also serve as a warning sign, or as a display of power, rank or authority, much like an animal's growl. A physical reaction will often follow the sight or sound of word we consider obscene: skin conductivity patterns spike, hairs on the arms rise, the pulse quickens and breathing becomes shallow.

Most of the time, this sort of language elicits negativity. Those full of negative emotions (anger, bitterness or fear) are more likely to swear as a way to express those feelings. Taken to an extreme, it can quickly be abusive and harassing, used in order to exert control over another person’s behavior. And a recent study of hiring managers showed they considered those who swear unprofessional, immature and less intelligent.

Can Be an Effective Social Tool

However, a UK study concluded that swearing is an effective social tool that not only helps people express feelings, but build relationships and trust in the workplace. Blue talk, according to one financial executive, helps people feel more comfortable and less formal. The study found that, under certain circumstances, a more permissive culture in terms of language has its advantages. Sometimes, swearing at someone can be very motivational.

Corporate Bans on Cursing

So it is a good thing then, right? Then why have so many firms banned it in one way or another? In 2010, Goldman Sachs told employees to eliminate profanity in all electronic messages. Many firms have followed suit, enforcing the policy through random audits and screening software. Even banned words spelled with asterisks are sniffed out and culled. Firms regularly remind employees that their e-mails should be professional and appropriate at all times, but won’t spell it out in much detail. In many such companies, it is simply a matter of professionalism, and profaners will find themselves addressed by their managers and requested to clean up their language.

Spontaneous or Thought-Out?

Researchers point out, however, that while cursing appears to often be a raw, spontaneous occurrence, it is indeed a calculated one. One who curses will rarely spew obscenities and insults at random, but instead adjust the content of the outburst appropriately. Scientific studies show that swearing relies on both the thinking and feeling pathways of the brain equally.

It may not ever be possible to eliminate cursing from the workplace, but the question remains: will it help or hinder your path to the next level? Well, like any comedian, politician or public speaker, you have to know your audience. Employees who curse are generally careful about their audiences: only about half swear in front of the boss, and just 13 percent will “go blue” in front of the CEO.

Know How It Will Be Received

So next time you feel like letting it fly, ask yourself how your “message” will be received. Your ability to determine your audience’s acceptance of that kind of language ahead of time—in the moment—is probably the greater predictor of your ultimate professional success. As Mark Twain put it, "When angry, count to four; when very angry, swear."

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