Illustration: Ashley SIebels
Have you ever accidentally cursed at your desk or while talking to a coworker? Good news: it turns out that swearing at work might not be such a bad thing. In fact, if used appropriately, profanity can even be an effective tool.
Benjamin Bergen, a professor of cognitive science at U.C. San Diego and the author of What the F, spoke to Ladders about the surprising power of profanity in the workplace.
Ladders: What is profanity’s role in the workplace?
Bergen: Profanity can serve many functions. It serves to lighten a situation, to create levity, and to decrease the stress or tension in a setting. It makes you feel like you’re in a more casual dialogue in a more casual setting.
It’s also used to motivate. When people use profanity, it’s often because they’re experiencing strong emotions. I’ve talked to people who are leaders in their companies who say that they use profanity specifically to demonstrate that they are emotionally engaged in a particular topic.
There’s also power dynamics involved in swearing. People who have more power in any situation—including a workplace—have more latitude to use words that violate typical social norms. The boss has more latitude to use colorful language than the intern does.
When is it not appropriate to swear at work?
We think of profanity as a homogenous thing, but it’s not. The type of profanity that people find acceptable in a workplace setting is uses that are merely expressing an emotion or being funny, personable, or informal.
The thing that’s much more controversial is to use profanity in ways directed toward other people. That’s no longer an expression of someone’s emotion but is bordering on aggression. The other type of language that people often object to in a workplace setting is language that’s abusive or derogative.
What does profanity say about someone?
We don’t know a lot about what profanity reveals about the person who uses it, because it’s hard to make someone swear spontaneously. But we do know a lot about how it’s perceived by others.
You can be perceived as more comfortable, more powerful, and more honest. But in the right circumstances, you can also be perceived as more out of control, more emotional than rational, and unhinged.
One thing that seems to push people’s impressions in one direction or the other is their preexisting beliefs about that person. As a consequence, the use of profanity really needs to be tailored to the audience and the situation.
Does gender matter?
In studies, women respondents do not seem to be particularly affected by men or women swearing. Men who are asked to respond to men and women swearing find female speakers to be more emotional, more out of control, more norm violators when they swear than they find men to be when they swear.
There’s this common belief that many of us have that women’s language is or should be more conservative than men’s language. Men have a little bit more liberty to be coarse.
Why is profanity so powerful?
It’s breaking a rule. We’ve been told since childhood that there’s language that’s bad. As a result, when people do swear, it’s a very visible violation of this social norm.
There’s also a physiological dimension. We’ve internalized those lessons that we gained in childhood, and our bodies react emotionally to profanity.
When I hear someone swear, my blood pressure increases, my heart rate increases, my palms start sweating. It’s the activation of something like a fight-or-flight response. Our bodies react, and we have this jolt of emotional arousal when we hear profanity, and that’s a tool that people can use to emotionally engage other people.
Do you use profanity at work?
I do it consistently. I teach a couple of large undergraduate classes, and one of those classes has more than 350 students. I can’t be responsive to all 350 of them necessarily, but one thing that I can do is use casual language. So I make sure to swear once per lecture.
If I mess up, I’ll swear about it. If I’m talking about the failings of a certain computational model or theory, or I’m trying to make a point about how lousy something is, then I might swear.
With 18- to 22-year olds, who aren’t necessarily expecting it in that context, it really works wonders. You look at the course evaluations, and they say things like: “He’s funny” or “He’s a great guy.” They have no idea if I’m a great guy or not—I’m probably a terrible guy. But in part because of this casual use of language, they feel like they have more of a connection to a person standing 150 feet away from them.
I also use it in conversations with other faculty. I might not use it in a faculty meeting, which feels like more of a formal situation. But when I’m talking about the results of some experiment with my colleagues down the hall, I’ll speak causally.
That makes it easier to do all of the business stuff that we have to do. When we go to go into a committee meeting and have to make a decision where we might not agree with each other, if we have this casual social relationship, it might be easier for us to hash it out. We’ll have more common ground, and we’ll have more trust in each other, and maybe things will work better.