Should You Ever Curse at Work?

These days, you’ll hear a lot of advice about how authenticity can lead to career success. But, what if your authentic self is a foul-mouthed maverick? Are there justifiable reasons to curse at the office?

An important #[email protected]&%*! disclaimer

Before you utter another word, it’s critical to understand that a tolerant attitude toward cursing does not sanction personal attacks, sexual harassment, discrimination, or hate speech like racism, sexism, or any other -isms.

If you can’t grasp this distinction, you’re not ready for workplace profanity.

This is a matter of personal fraking opinion

There’s no right and wrong in this debate. You are the master of your mind and your mouth, as well as what comes out of it. What you can’t control is how other people will react to what you say.

There’s also no cultural consensus about what counts as curse words. As comedian George Carlin’s said in his famous Seven Dirty Words bit, “you have to say them to find out which ones they are.” Even the FCC was ordered to stop fining TV broadcasters for verbal obscenities in 2012 and no longer publishes a definitive list of banned words.

Consider your <expletive suppressed> motivation

Before you sling a swear word, think about why you want to curse. If you hope to inject humor into a situation, proceed, but with caution. If you want to vent anger, think about whether you’d be better off dragging a close colleague into a private space before letting the curses fly. If your aim is to wound someone with your words, go for a walk or call your therapist.

Context bleeping matters

A word or phrase that doesn’t bother you might offend someone else. What makes one person laugh may cause another person to report you to HR. What passes for congenial conversation in foulmouthed Ohio might scandalize someone living in curse-adverse Washington state.

This variability doesn’t mean you should avoid every word that could possibly offend. Don’t let one fuddy duddy’s anti-cursing stance neuter your self expression. Yet, don’t use uncalled-for profanity just to get a rise out of your coworkers. That’s rude and unfriendly, and borders on harassment.

Bad language can be [redacted] beneficial

If you never curse, you could be causing yourself more harm than good. Because humans have wired our brains to link taboo words to strong emotions, profanity can help people communicate more clearly and control their anger. Scientific research has also shown that swearing can significantly reduce pain and ease stress. Don’t overdo it, though. Curse too often and you’ll undo its healing qualities.

Since the occasional obscenity can help your coworkers cope, cut them some slack. Don’t take their outbursts personally.

Know your f*****g audience

Cursing among coworkers isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What psychologist Dr. Helen Ross called “social swearing” can help create close relationships and cultivate intimacy with others. Other researchers suggest that, as long as it’s not used to abuse, cursing can be a benefit in the workplace.

That doesn’t mean cursing at an all-staff meeting or a community event will earn you respect. Before you speak, consider what a person or group may think about you because of the language you use—and whether that matches how you want to be perceived.

Make up your own effing mind

I adore the emotional punch of well-chosen words, both polite and profane. I also grew up in New York, a land of belligerent people who use the f-bomb like punctuation. If I stopped cursing, my friends and family would worry. That all means I’m easygoing when it comes to gutter talk. You might feel otherwise.

What’s your opinion about cursing at work? Sound off in the comments.

Lauren Girardin is a marketing and communications consultant, writer, and speaker based in San Francisco. She helps organizations and do-gooders engage their communities and tell their stories. Her website is laurengirardin.com and you can connect with her on Twitter at @girardinl.

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Mark Hammer

Consider it an incentive to master the art of the euphemism, and all those old English Elizabethan-era cuss-words. Expletives needn’t be mundane. Indeed, my biggest gripe about easy swearing is that it tends to trim people’s vocabulary, by replacing thoughtfully-chosen words with generic substitutes; reducing the variety of what they say.

Language is one of the great achievements of our species. Make an effort to explore all corners of it!

Mark Hammer

Interesting set of findings/conclusions, and I suppose “fluency is fluency”, or rather lexicon is lexicon. Maybe I’ve watched too much Trailer Park Boys, but there definitely ARE many people whose lexicon IS strained, and who are genuinely perplexed if a conversant strays beyond the top 200 words from the Kucera-Francis norms ( http://link.springer.com/article/10.3758%2FBF03204543#page-1 ). Not having access to the Jay & Jay paper, though, I’m not sure what they mean by “slur” and “pejorative”. Can’t tell if we’re on the same effing page or not. 🙂

But back to your post….sometimes crossing the norms of propriety CAN foster a sense of emotional intimacy. In that sense, it is not unlike the way that “authenticity” has been discussed of late as a way of establishing trust between leaders and subordinates.

Some years back, I did a quick and dirty survey of some 80 students in a class of mine, looking at the extent to which their parents visibly and explicitly expressed their values. I found that when students reported a given parent (and it could be different for each parent) more frequently expressed their beliefs and priorities in life in a declarative manner, the student was more likely to feel close to that parent, and was more trusting of that parent to act in the child’s best interests without prompting.

In some respects, when we cross norms of propriety by the way we speak, especially when we are angered about matters of principle, it is a way of expressing our values and priorities. So I could see that the occasional cuss-word, used in the “right” manner, could actually assist in building trust between individuals in an organization.

C. DeEllis Wamnble

CURSING anywhere is a bad idea. Road rage is understandable……BUT AT WORK…. not only no ………BUT ABSOLUTELY NOT.

Keep it professional. And this is from a 31 year veteran from the NAVY.

Lauren Girardin

I’m sticking with the research that indicates you can be a better professional if you let a curse out once in a while, though of course being careful that it’s the right time, place, and audience.

I also know that most people perceive all caps on screen as the same as YELLING, a conversational style that’s better avoided in polite conversation 🙂


I agree with you C. W. and I am a 20 year Army veteran. I did curse at work many years ago and found it very offensive to my co-workers and to myself. I made it a personal goal to stop and submit to a more professional venue to communicate with co-workers. Personal experience and moral conflictions always out weigh research.

Kate Lasswell

We’re feeling a little judged here in Washington State … but we’re too polite to (im)properly chew you out.

Mark Hammer

The most important word here is not the ones replaced by euphemism or a “punctuation buffet”, but rather the word “ever”.

Should office language be treated as akin to an eggshell, wherein any tiny crack compromises the integrity of the whole thing, and seriously undermines leadership and respect? As our kin in the military have expressed here, there ARE contexts in which even occasionally straying from the straight and narrow, can clash so seriously with established culture as to damage leadership. Somewhat ironic when one considers expressions as “swearing like a sailor”, but the general gist here is whether such lexical digressions from those one reports to can impair organizational functioning. And I would imagine in more structured hierarchies where lines of authority are to be strictly observed, that authority is compromised by lapses. Sloppy language becomes on par with sloppy uniform and sloppy ethics. In more horizontal organizations, it would be more permissible.

I think there are contexts where the odd bit here and there can do some real good, contexts where the odd bit wouldn’t have any impact, and contexts where it could be harmful. The challenge is being accurate in identifying which context one is in. Certainly, excessive use is likely to have a deleterious effect in any context.

One wonders as well about how language sets examples for others. If, as manager, I am normally restrained and diplomatic in my language, but a particular serious matter elicits a lapse, my behaviour conveys that I take that matter seriously enough to lapse, but my other behaviour still conveys what is normative. If I’m more casual in my use, that will have an example-setting effect that may be harmful to relations with clients and on-boarding of new employees, and conceivably bleed into areas of harassment and inter-employee conflict..

Bill McFadden

We are in theory well educated individuals in white collar professional jobs. We are being paid for using our minds. We are expected to keep ourselves under control. To be considered a professional one needs to both look the part and act the part. Workplace cursing makes the individual uttering the words to be appear to an ignoramus who is unable to control their temper. It is not cool or trendy. It exposes the one uttering the words as the unprofessional individual that they are.

Kristin Anderson

Former merchant marine here … clean it up, ye scurvy swabbies, when yer out representin’ in public, or when yer colleagues ask! You don’t want to be the person who is like fingernails on the chalkboard, with your co-workers biting their tongues wondering just how bad things would get if they went to HR. We’re not all first responders or front line infantry, fer [email protected]*&)#(@!!!– a lot of us are plain ol’ office workers, and being “business cordial” is important.

Govvies need to have “polite and civilized” as part of their repertoire.

Alberto Principe

Hi Lauren! An interesting and humorous article. While I do not agree with using foul language in the workplace, I did find your narrative quite entertaining. I also wanted to make you smile by sharing John Oliver’s thoughts about some scientific studies. Thanks again for making me smile today.
Scientific Studies: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Rnq1NpHdmw