Filled up the swear jar at work? Is swearing at work actually good for you?

Filled up the swear jar at work? Is swearing at work actually good for you?

swearing at work

Swearing at work – good or bad?

Do you have days where you appear to be filling up the swear jar faster than anyone else at work? Many of us let loose now and then when things go wrong, or we get frustrated or someone upsets us. But can swearing at work be good for us? A new study examining executives’, doctors’ and lawyers’ use of swearing in the workplace has found a bit of a mixed bag of results about the outcomes of swearing at work.


This research briefing was sent out to members in April 2017

No swearing at work


Workplace incivility

Workplace incivility is a descriptor of low intensity antisocial behaviour, or rude, disrespectful behaviour towards others. While of mild intensity, workplace incivility can lead to bullying and violence and is the thin end of an undesirable wedge that has been frequently shown to result in a decrease in employee productivity and commitment. It contributes to an unproductive and often destructive atmosphere in the workplace.

However, in certain contexts, and contrary to previous assumptions, swearing isn’t seen to be in this category as long as it is appropriately done. As one interviewee said “Swearing is not a crime if people don’t take offence”. In effect, as long as the swearing is not aimed at another individual in an accusatory way it is not considered to be part of workplace incivility.


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General situations where people swear

People swear for a variety of reasons. Amongst a host of situations, they may be in pain, frustrated, stressed or annoyed. Additionally, swearing is frequently used to convey a social bond through showing familiarity and informality. Further, swearing can be used to gee up subordinates through conveying urgency or to show a particularly badly done task.


The research

52 executives, medical doctors, lawyers and one army colonel from France, the UK and US were investigated. The study found that almost all of these professionals swore at some point, daily.

Strategic swearing

Given the daily preponderance of swearing with professionals, it was found that they were largely very disciplined as to when and how they used profanity in the workplace. For example, doctors tend not to swear in front of patients, lawyers won’t swear in court or in front of clients and executives won’t swear in front of senior management, subordinates or in formal meetings.


Times to let loose

Women often swear in front of men where they perceived a masculine environment, such as engineering or in the legal profession.

Men and women tended to use sexualised swear words such as ‘putain’ (whore) and enfoiré (mother*cker), while one US lawyer referred to a particularly bitchy female colleague as ‘c*nterella’, when talking about others who were considered to be the cause of frustration, and who were not in earshot.

The professionals thought that subordinates, blue collar workers and younger entrants to their professions swore more than they did and that their swearing was more moderate, this, however,  was not borne out by the study.


Holding back

Softer swear words such as ‘bloody hell’ and ‘bollocks’ were used selectively. One female lawyer said that she might refer to someone as having said ‘F off’ as opposed to using the full ‘f word’ in court. Softer insults were often used between doctors to refer to certain patients, such as ‘little old lady’.


Benefits to swearing at work

Used well, foul language is seen to have benefits.

It was found that swearing frequently:

1.   Quickly relieves stress
2.   Airs frustration
3.   Breaks latent conflict
4.   Relieves tension
5.   Underlines points
6.   Helps people to cope in stressful situations
7.   Helps to foster resilience.

Swearing also often enables the individual to get attention and convey urgency. One US lawyer said that they swore at a client to get them to wake up to their situation. Among colleagues, swearing shows ease in someone’s company, but can also intimidate someone into action. Finally, a witty yet rude comment can get a laugh in most situations.

Team identity

Swearing can also convey group solidarity. Lawyers often get together in a room outside of court and speak like squaddies, doctors also often use swearing in a similar way amongst their peers. Executives found that they might not swear in a formal meeting but after it is adjourned they may gather in groups in the room and convey their frustration at the meeting’s content.


A note on countries’ differences

A final note in the study was on the differences between countries. The authors observed:
1.   Gender differences were salient in the discourse of French interviewees, not  British or U.S. interviewees;
2.   Attention to degrees of profanity and subtle differences between swearing and insulting language were found in the UK and U.S. sample, not the French sample;
3.   U.S. interviewees, particularly U.S. lawyers, think of swearing as something less serious and even see the humorous side of it. U.S. interviewees even talked about using swearing to sort out disagreements and further strengthen relationships.
4.   Swearing is used for socialisation (mainly UK), for making a point or emphasising something (all) and relieving tension (all).”


Reference – available to members


Causes of fatigue at work and how to deal with it

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David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Review. He is also acknowledged to be one of the world's leading experts in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing emotional resilience. David teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including the University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division, Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University School of Business and many more. He has worked with many organisations as a consultant and executive coach including Schroders, where he coaches and runs their leadership and management programmes, Royal Mail, Aimia, Hyundai, The RAF, The Pentagon, the governments of the UK, US, Saudi, Oman and the Yemen for example. In 2010 he developed the world's first and only model and programme for developing emotional resilience across entire populations and organisations which has since become known as the Fear to Flow model which is the subject of his next book. In 2012 he drove a 1973 VW across six countries in Southern Africa whilst collecting money for charity and conducting on the ground charity work including developing emotional literature in children and orphans in Africa and a number of other activities. He is the author of The Ambiguity Advanatage: What great leaders are great at, published by Palgrave Macmillian. See more: About: About David Wikipedia: David's Wikipedia Page