Is swearing at work acceptable?


Something’s gone wrong: a client pulls out of a project, a colleague lets you down, you make a mistake in a report, you spill coffee over your desk. Do you let out a curse word?

Science says it can actually be good for you to cuss, and now research has shown it’s widely accepted that swearing in the office is commonplace.

A new poll from LinkedIn surveying nearly 31,000 people found that 30% of respondents swore at work “constantly”. A further 42% said they felt comfortable swearing around their colleagues but only in more casual settings.

Just 22% said they would never swear at work or around their peers, while a further 6% chose the ‘Other’ option. Responses in the comments ranged from “I wouldn’t dream of it” to advising that it’s a case of “reading the room”.

It comes as a judge in the U.K. ruled using the f-word at work is “fairly commonplace“. Judge Andrew Gumbiti-Zimuto said that the phrase “I don’t give a f***” no longer has the “shock value” it once did, while ruling over a case of unfair dismissal.

Common, yes—but when it is okay?

“With the rise of A.I. and ChatGPT, human skills have never been so important,” Lewis Meleh, founder and CEO of boutique executive search firm Bentley Lewis, told Fortune.

Meleh, who works with large listed companies across the finance, health and technology sectors, said employing these skills of emotional intelligence are vital when establishing when you should swear at work and what sort of language is acceptable.

“There are some words you should just stay away from,” he said. “I also wouldn’t recommend swearing in an interview. There’s a lot of advice about being your authentic self at work but you’ve got to be sensible—just listen to what other people are saying and when they’re saying it. Let that lead you.”

Offices have gotten more relaxed since the pandemic, both in terms of flexible working and what people wear when they get to the office, said Sheri Hughes, a director at British-based recruiters Michael Page.

Speaking to Fortune, Hughes added: “The fundamental thing to remember is that the use of language in general should be inclusive. You may feel comfortable using certain words or phrases around close colleagues, but have you thought about some of the connotations behind them and the impact that may have on your peers?”

For those in the 22% who wouldn’t swear at work, flagging the behavior in others as making them uncomfortable should be handled in a relaxed way, Meleh added. A casual pushback when a swear word is uttered could be one way, or raising someone else’s discomfort could be another.   

He explained: “If you’re in an office and you notice a colleague swearing and a manager raising an eyebrow, then pull that colleague to one side and say it’s something you’ve noticed. Could they miss out on a promotion, might they be avoided to collaborate on projects? They’ll thank you for telling them.

“If you’re uncomfortable yourself then you could just take them to one side and have that conversation one-on-one, you don’t necessarily need to get a manager or team leader involved.”

The science of swearing

Research is increasingly showing that cussing can actually be good for you—especially if it’s to relieve pain or frustration. However, if you’re someone who swears 60 times a day or more, then the relief from the expletive will be somewhat less profound.

A study published in the Journal of Pain out of Keele University’s School of Psychology found that swearing increased pain tolerance and heart rate compared with not swearing.

Richard Stephens, who conducted the research alongside Claudia Umland, said at the time: “Our research suggests that swearing is a useful part of language that can help us express strong emotions or react to high pressure situations. However, it would be wise only to swear in moderation as over-use of swearing seems to water down this effect.”

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