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  • WTF? Swearing at work is good for business

    Bans on swearing in college sports have been making headlines in the last year or two as part of a concerted effort to enforce good sportsmanship among players and fans alike, both toward the opposing team and toward the refs, but a new study coming out of the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Business School reports that, while swearing may cost you the game, on the plus side it does build team spirit.  Their research further suggests that turning the air blue on a regular basis may actually be good for business.

    The legendary American lawyer Clarence Darrow reportedly told one interviewer, “I don’t swear just for the hell of it” (at least the Darrow character in Inherit the Wind says this).  Now two business scholars, Yehuda Baruch and Stuart Jenkins, report in a recent issue of the Leadership and Organization Development Journal (vol. 28 [2007], pp. 492-507), that regular swearing at work creates a sense of community and reinforces social relationships.  

    Baruch and Jenkins found that, contrary to the common stereotype, women actually swear a lot at work, though more with other women than with men, and that more predictably, younger managers were more tolerant of this behavior than the old f*rts in the corner office.  

    Baruch and Jenkins conclude that swearing is neither negative nor abusive, at least when it’s not meant by the swearers to be negative or abusive, and they recommend that managers, who swear much less than lower-level employees, take a more-relaxed attitude toward workers who don’t inhibit.  And top executives might even benefit from letting loose a well-chosen word or two themselves.

    Prof. Yehuda Baruch

    Prof. Yehuda Baruch, of the Norwich Business School, says no one should give a hoot, at least at work, when someone says “What the hey?”

    Needless to say, the press has been having a field day reporting on this research, using it as an opportunity to use blunt language without drawing the wrath of the censor.  One female news anchor even shocked her colleagues by testing the provocative theory live, on the air, before her words could be bleeped out.  But don't try this at the office.  The pair of British researchers don't recommend swearing at or in front of the public.  They realize that swearing may be OK in some contexts, but not in others.  Politicians certainly prefer to swear when the mike is off.

    Despite these findings about the upside of swearing, b-schools won’t be rushing to develop programs in corporate cursing, HR departments aren’t preparing team-building-through-profanity exercises, and taboo words are not likely to become acceptable either in the break room or the outer office anytime soon.  

    Nor are they likely to go away.  When I ask my students what they would change about the English language if they could, many say they’d like to get rid of all the swearing.  They admit to using bad language, but they’re also convinced that it’s always inappropriate, if not downright wrong.

    Reporters concerned about what they regard as the coarsening of our discourse frequently ask me whether people use more four-letter words today than they did in the past, and if so, does this signal a decline in family values and the end of civilization as we know it?  They ask this because, like my students, they believe it to be true.  

    Unfortunately, we don’t have much in the way of records to document what people really said in the old days, but while swearing on television and in movies is certainly more prevalent today than it was in the 1950s, it’s not clear that real-life people are swearing any more, or any less, than they ever did.  It’s also likely that people have been swearing since the first caveman hit his thumb with the first hammer, because swearing provides an important emotional outlet, one which we will always need.  

    I read somewhere that accident investigators examining the black boxes after airplane crashes have found that the last words many pilots say before their plane goes into the side of the mountain are often something like, “Oh, [expletive deleted]!”  This information is rarely made public, because no one wants to think their last words will be so unmemorable.

    We expect last words to be significant, hence the phrase “famous last words,” which is often used ironically.  According to Shakespeare, Julius Caesar’s famous last words, when he was stabbed by Brutus, were, “Et tu, Brute?  Then fall Caesar.”  Shakespeare actually adapted this elegant and tragic quote from the Roman historian Suetonius, who has Caesar speaking something equally high-toned in Greek.  But Suetonius wrote many years after a funny thing happened to the Roman emperor on the way to the Forum.  For all we know, when Caesar realized that his supposed friend and ally Brutus was attacking him, he really blurted out the Latin equivalent of WTF.  Which goes to show you that sometimes cursing isn’t team building after all. 

    Death of Caesar

    The opposite of team building, otherwise known as "The Death of Julius Caesar," as painted by the 19th-century Italian artist, Vincenzo Camuccini

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