Illustration: Ashley Siebels
Imagine you’re in a high-intensity meeting with all of your co-workers, and the CEO is giving an important speech about steps forward. Then he suddenly drops an f-bomb or a word you hear in bars, not in conference calls.
If he’s Elon Musk, of Tesla Motors, he tells shareholders, “our suppliers mostly have their sh-t together.”
Or Jamie Dimon, of JP Morgan Chase, commenting, “I want to try not stepping in dogsh-t, which we do now and then.”
Cursing shows people are being authentic
Whether he did it purposely or accidentally, what’s the reaction? Shock? Shame? Neither.
Usually, it’s as if someone opened a window and a wave of cool air hit everyone in the face: finally, someone is being real.
Maybe it causes everyone in the room to burst out laughing, or maybe it just inspires a few chuckles and smiles. Whatever the reaction, however, a little cursing seems to make people feel closer to the swearer, regardless of their status. Cursing feels like permission for everyone to drop the masks we wear at work.
No wonder cursing increased last year on corporate earnings calls after a couple of slow years, according to Seeking Alpha.
There is one exception: when we swear at other people, it increases tension and aggression in the office.
This is a fascinating phenomenon, especially when you consider how many people grew up being told swearing, especially in public forums, is uncouth. But perhaps that, in and of itself, is why we as adults seem to gravitate towards people who do it.
1. Breaking the ‘rules’ creates a sense of solidarity
According to a 2004 New Zealand study, employees who curse liberally over frustrations at work have a tighter bond. While the study was focused on factory workers who already have a more relaxed rapport, the beneficial results can be applied to any work setting. Swearing with work colleagues is an effective stress and discomfort reliever, which can in turn lead to more friendships.
Beyond that, because we associate cursing with a more casual setting, when someone higher up on the corporate ladder does it, it encourages levity at work.
2. Cursing at work denotes honesty
A study that was recently published in Social Psychological and Personality Science found that people who curse regularly tend to be more honest than their less foul-mouthed peers. Scientists explored this relationship of cursing to integrity on three levels — individual surveys, social media behavior, and state level — and came to the same conclusion each time: more cursing equaled more sincerity.
Needless to say, having an honest person working beside you, above you or below you is always better than the alternative — the too-careful, too-studied colleague who always seems to be holding back and isn’t sharing honestly, like Shakespeare’s Cassius with his “lean and hungry look.”
3. People who curse may be smarter
While the assumption of someone who swears a lot is often that they’re lacking in the vocabulary department, the opposite may actually be true. A study at Marist College found that people who use more swear words are more likely to have healthier linguistic abilities than the average person. Cursing doesn’t come from a lack of vocabulary; it comes from a robust need for emphasis.
So bosses, take note: if you have an employee who can’t help peppering a few four-letter words into casual conversations, you might want to consider giving them more responsibility rather than a stern chastisement.
4. Well-timed cursing adds humor to the workday
When a friend is telling a story about a frustrating situation, and lets that frustrated feeling out on a curse, it usually makes us laugh. Psychologist Timothy Jay explains the reasons for this in his book Why We Curse, but the simple answer is: their impassioned outburst is breaking societal rules, and that sudden freedom is surprising and feels good to hear. Certain comedians (Lewis Black) are particularly good at knowing the most effective time to let a curse fly.
Of course everyone likes a funny guy/gal in the office, because it’s yet another thing that cuts through tension and stress. Occasional cursing can certainly aid in raising your funny guy/gal status. Just be sure to pick your moments, aka not during a formal presentation.
5. Cursing is persuasive
That being said, if you’re giving a presentation or speech, and you let one swear word fly, it could have a great deal of power over your audience. Cursing is often how people express extreme emotions (especially anger) without getting physical. As a result, those words can have a significant amount of potential energy behind them. A 2006 study at Northern Illinois University found that such empowered obscenities can have a positive impact on an audience, and even sway their opinions.
That emotional conviction makes one seem more confident and trustworthy — great attributes for any employee, especially if they’re in sales.
Does this mean you should go into work tomorrow firing off curses left and right? Probably not. If you pick your moments, however, you may find cursing has the potential to open some unanticipated doors.