Do you swear in the workplace? I bet you try not to, at least not too often. But sometimes it slips out, and sometimes it just feels right. What do we know about the effect profanity has on our candor and our emotional closeness to others?
Years ago, I was driving my two-and-a-half year old daughter to childcare. It was cold out, and she was safely bucked into the car seat in the back. We lived on a major street, and I drove Westbound a half-mile to the nearest red light. There was a car in front of us with the right turn signal on, but they weren’t turning. My daughter said “Get out of the fawa way.” My head tilted, and I ran the phrase through my head. “Sweetie,” I asked, “what did you just say?”
“Get out of the fucking way,” she announced. I contained my laughter. This was her first F-bomb, and I had just enough self-control to realize I couldn’t teach her this was funny. I had to keep this social.
“Darling,” I asked, “where did you learn to talk like that?”
“Mummy talks that way every time she drives.” I gripped the wheel and tensed my facial muscles, using all of my life force to resist laughing. The light changed, and we continued driving. I turned into the ever-familiar cul-de-sac, and we stepped into the childcare to take off her shoes and jacket. I asked our childcare provider, Liliana, if I could borrow her phone. I said there was something I needed my wife to hear. Liliana said she knew what this was about. She was experienced.
I phoned my wife who was at home on maternity leave bonding with our second child. “Hello?” she answered. “Hi, your daughter just said something and I want you to hear it” I said. “Oh, this can’t be good” she cringed. I handed my daughter the phone and prompted her to “Say to mummy what you hear her say every time she drives.” She was wearing a cute little dress with pink flowers. She held the phone to her ear and yelled: “Fuckin’ mooove!”
What the Science Says About Profanity
What does swearing accomplish, really? Citing excerpts from Emma Byrne’s Swearing is Good For You a Wired article from January 2018 described several behavioral experiments involving swearing. In one, test subjects were asked to submerge their hands in ice water until they could not tolerate it any more. Some were asked to state neutral terms describing furniture, and others were asked to say a profanity.
“…when they were swearing, the intrepid volunteers could keep their hands in the water nearly 50 percent longer as when they used their non-cursing, table-based adjectives. Not only that, while they were swearing the volunteers’ heart rates went up and their perception of pain went down. In other words, the volunteers experienced less pain while swearing.”
Enduring physical pain was also associated with aggressive game-playing, and a willingness to harm others in a simulation in which they could choose to shock others. There’s a cross-over between insensitivity, enduring discomfort, mean-ness, and profanity. Hence our vocabulary is so much richer when driving.
Swearing also makes people physically stronger. Athletes can attest to this. In one study cited by the Guardian people swearing while operating an exercise bike saw their peak power increase by 28 watts. In another test, profanity increased grip strength by 2.1kg.
We can envision a profanity-rich working environment where people exert physical effort and occasionally get hurt. I imagine construction sites, the armed forces, and resource sectors as places where swearing might just be a normal coping mechanism for the physical environment. But what about an office environment?
Directly quoting Byrne’s book once again, an article from the Cut noted
“From the factory floor to the operating theatre, scientists have shown that teams who share a vulgar lexicon tend to work more effectively together, feel closer, and be more productive than those who don’t,” she writes. …A study published earlier this year backs up this and other research, suggesting swearing with colleagues can help create “a sense of belonging, mutual trust, group affiliation … and cohesion.”
Referencing other research, the article noted that profanity “…does still carry some social risk — it’s still a little bit taboo — so it imparts a feeling of trust in whomever you’re swearing with.”
Profanity Must Be Distributed Fairly
It’s interesting that we would trust people who swear more. On one hand, people are going against the current to express a more candid emotional state. On the other hand, people who break all the rules tend to swear more… and those people aren’t more trustworthy. There’s a good review of the literature by Scott McGreal in Psychology Today, in which he looks at three different studies about honesty and swearing. McGreal concludes the findings are mixed and sometimes contradictory.
A frustrating feature of this trust and solidarity is the double-standard on the use of profanity. In the article in the Cut, Byrne noted men and women used to both swear with abandon until the early 18th century. Then women were encouraged to adopt cleaner language. Men, by contrast retained the right to swear, using their power to express a full range of emotion. To this day, there is more judgement when women swear, compared to the men’s presumed freedom.
My question is, if there’s a workplace that has a mixture of men and women, how are people to experience equality and camaraderie without a level playing-field for profanity? If it’s male-stereotyped work involving physical strength and the endurance of pain and discomfort, do we disadvantage women in those workplaces by discouraging them from swearing? And what about female-dominated work in health care, child care, and food services that often require strength and the enduring of pain and discomfort? Those are customer-facing work environments, so some decorum is in order. Are we discouraging full workplace performance by requiring lady-like vocabularies?
Besides, who ever said that women should swear less in the first place?
One thing’s for certain, this opinion did not come from my wife.