Crucial Conversations QA

Foul Language at Work—To Confront or Not to Confront?

Dear David,

I’m in my sixties, and it bothers me when I hear people in the office using what I consider to be foul language, most often the “F-word”. This happens when they are on the phone having personal conversations and sometimes in internal office meetings. This language seems ingrained in the younger employees, and I doubt they have any idea it can be offensive. I have mentioned this to Human Resources, but they have more pressing concerns. Have we moved to the point where the “F-bomb” is just an accepted part of speech, even in the business environment?

Seeking Decorum

Dear Seeking,

What a wonderful question! You prompted me to dig into the science of swearing. Thanks, I think . . . Here is a bit of what I’ve learned:

First, norms differ depending on context and industry. Words that fit in the pool hall are unacceptable in church. Language that is okay on the construction site isn’t okay in the front office or with customers. Your colleagues who use profanity on the phone with their friends may not be mindful that they are still at work. Informal contexts including, perhaps, your internal office meetings also allow for more language leeway. And certainly our work environments have become more informal—in office design, decoration, clothing, hours, and language.

Second, speech evolves. Even the most offensive words tend to lose their power over time. Words that begin as verbal assaults that hurt, shock, and break taboos become less shocking with repetition. Profanity becomes street talk and enters the mainstream. Finally, profane words become commonplace—they lose their profanity. This evolution is seen in words such as bloody, blazes, and bull, which were considered vile in the 1800’s but are toothless today.

So where is the F-word on this progression? The Parents Television Council measured the frequency of different profane words used on TV shows. Their data showed a 2,409 percent increase in the F-word (bleeped, of course) over the five-year period from 2005 to 2010. If they measured F-word frequency again this year, I bet they’d find it has increased another 2,000 percent or more. It’s a word we now hear routinely.

Third, swear words can and have been categorized. The main categories are related to: religion, parentage, body parts and bodily functions, sex, and defamation of groups. Over the last fifty years or so, the curses and obscenities related to the first four of these categories, including the F-word, have lost much of their power to shock and offend. But the final category, which includes racist, homophobic, and other group-based slanders have become increasingly taboo. I guess I’ll call this progress. At least we are reserving our greatest social sanctions for words that actually hurt and defame other people.

Fourth, using swear words and obscenities is a perk of power.
In our society, swearing is more acceptable for bosses than subordinates; for men than women; and for adults than children. Think of it this way: swearing is likely to offend people. Can you afford to offend the people who will hear you? High status people are more likely to answer, yes.

Okay, enough with the science. While it certainly helps to understand the state of swearing in our culture, it doesn’t mean you are simply a victim without any power to influence your own workplace. What can you do when you find people’s language offensive? Really, you have two choices. You can either tolerate it, or you can speak up.

Tolerating: If you decide to tolerate the language, you will have to put your resentment behind you. The risk is that you will feel like a victim, and your annoyance will show on your face and in your blood pressure. Instead, decide that the offensive word means nothing to you—that it’s no longer offensive. The word has already lost its meaning to your colleagues who are using it. They don’t intend to offend you when they use it, so don’t take offense.

Speaking Up: Even though the F-word is everywhere and has lost much of its power to shock, you are still well within your rights to ask your colleagues to avoid it. But you need to make your request in a way that doesn’t offend them. Remember, the word means nothing to them, so your request may sound prudish or condescending. Begin with a contrast statement that clarifies you are NOT accusing them of being insensitive, rude, or obnoxious. Then make your request. It might sound something like this:

“In meetings and when you’re on the phone, you often use the F-word, and I can’t help but hear it. I know you don’t mean anything by it, but I don’t think it fits in our work environment. Would you mind making the effort to avoid it at work?”

Please let me know what you decide to try and how it works for you.



David Maxfield

David Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, David has delivered engaging keynotes at prestigious venues including Stanford and Georgetown Universities. David’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.
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10 thoughts on “Foul Language at Work—To Confront or Not to Confront?”

  1. The Foul Language at Work story reminded me of an experience a few years ago. I worked for a large company that conducted a survey designed to measure how closely the leadership at each site reflected the company’s well-defined values.

    My site came up shorter than they liked, so they formed a focus group to drive improvement. I was a member of the focus group. One of the first values we addressed was Respect for Others. My supervisor and others in leadership frequently used the F-word and other colorful language in meetings, in person, and when ever they felt passionate about something, or so it seemed. After discussion, the focus group informed site leadership that supervisors and leaders using such strong language in meetings and in conversation was intimidating to some employees, who were afraid to speak up because they didn’t want to encourage more outbursts.

    To their credit, site leadership took it to heart, installed a “cuss jar” on their boardroom table, and anyone who broke the anti-swearing rule had to contribute a dollar. I don’t remember what the money went for, but I distinctly remember that the swearing died out quickly. And the site achieved a higher score on their values survey the following year.

  2. I think the suggested phrasing would not necessarily be received well as it is a judgement about what is acceptable in the office which may be inaccurate . I would suggest something a little more personal. Such as I know the f word is not meant to be inflammatory when you use it but when I hear it, maybe because I am older, I find it hard to get past and really hear what you are saying. I would appreciate if you could try and use it less. I do not mean to be rude ….
    Just my thoughts ..

  3. I am also in my sixties and I do not appreciate use of the f-bomb in my presence. In my classroom (junior and senior level university students), we do “Class Rules” the first day of class and i get to give the first rule –No profanity.
    I have experienced that those who use the “f-bomb” do so because they have trouble expressing themselves, often due to a lack of enough English language vocabulary to select an adjective that more clearly describes their feelings and thoughts.

  4. Dear David, I was really surprised by your comment to “Seeking” in regards to foul language in the office place. My company does not have a policy regarding foul language but I believe our company policy of harassment (which is a no tolerance policy) would lean toward addressing this issue more specifically should someone bring it up and I believe it would become a foul language free zone. I too am older and have been in professional environments for over 30 years. In all my years of reading about achieving success, the most common thread of successful people is building a strong vocabulary. Everything I have read points to this, that what a person thinks and says begins to make who that person is. As our societal moral body decays so does our country and our economy. Many successful leaders, Carnegie, Vitale, Canfield, Tracy, Ziglar, and others have repeatedly said if want to be successful then build a strong vocabulary and a strong command of the English language. You can gain more ground, respect and success by being a good speaker and writer and using a strong vocabulary ( a non-profane one) than by using words with only have shock value even if those words no longer have as much shock value by the upcoming generations. Recently, I heard my nephew refer to his girlfriend as his best “ho”. When I asked him about it he said it was an endearing term used by the younger ones these days. The reality is that term reflects the lack of respect and it shows how language minimizes the beauty and mystery of relationship between a man and a woman to nothing more than a cheap encounter. I spoke up to my nephew about it, not in a condemning way but just to try to make him think about what he as saying. I don’t know if it changed his mind or his language but I have seen how derogatory speech tears down women and men both young and old. I am sad that in essence you too have seemed to acccept this evolved language as now acceptable speech.

  5. Intent and impact are important when discussing offensive or violent language. Work sites of employers should be free of harassing, offensive or abusive language, regardless of context.

  6. I fine my co-workers $10 every time the f bomb comes out. I don’t collect, but I keep adding the amount up. Around $30 accumulated, they get the message.

  7. As a manager, I have set the standard that no foul language is to be used in meetings whether in person or on the phone. Its just not professional. If a manager uses foul language, then the managers reports will deem it as an acceptable behavior. This will carry over to interactions with fellow employees and with our customers which can lead to conflicts and misunderstandings. I have had the comment that “that’s just the way I talk and I really can’t help it sometimes” My response is that it is a choice and I ask them the question” Would you use the same language in the presence of your mother or a minister? The answer is always the same, “no”. If we accept foul language as normal, then we are saying that we cannot control ourselves or recognize when our words are inappropriate. Our customers and fellow employees need to know that we have respect for them and I believe this will carry over to a more productive and successful environment at work and at home.

  8. David, your response surprises me. I expect (and normally observe) higher levels of self control and civiilty from those higher in our organizations. This applies to the use of profane language in particular. We should promote higher expectations of civility in the workplace and tactfully challenge those who insist on routine use of profane language. Otherwise, it will be increasingly difficult to find safety in conversations with peers, subordinates, and superiors.

  9. Scenario: An employee is in their own office, having a casual conversation with another coworker, but the office door is open. This is not in a customer-service area; there are only coworkers in surrounding spaces. They are discussing a particularly belligerent customer, whom one refers to as a “F’g A-hole” – again, no customers around – just staff offices. A neighboring co-worker (immediate co-workers for over 10 years) overhears it, and rather than express their discomfort directly to their foul-mouthed neighbor, files an anonymous complaint to the HR Department.

    How would you expect an HR professional to handle that complaint?

    1. This varies company to company. Our company recently changed the policy so that such behavior is only “actionable” it damages the person hearing it monetarily or prevents them from doing their job. Our mid-level managers use foul language and make jokes about disabled people, so nothing would be done about it.

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