During a Congressional hearing last April, U.S. senators grilled executives at investment bank Goldman Sachs over a curiously colorful comment made by one of its lieutenants regarding the unattractive nature of a sub-prime mortgage deal. In a June 2007 email, the Goldman banker called this particular deal a raunchy, six-letter expletive.
Soon after, the company quickly cleaned up its communications policy, telling its 34,000 traders, investment bankers and other employees that they would no longer be able to send e-mails containing profanity.
Swearing policies like Goldman’s are commonplace. Citigroup and JPMorganChase have similar rules, and even Forbes regulates e-mails containing profanity to a spam folder.
Your mother may approve of that policy, but when it comes to galvanizing the troops or just getting the point across, some spicy language can come in handy in the workplace.
“The problem with scrutiny laws is that employees might be hesitant not just to swear but to express relevant concerns about risk and the incompetence of people they are working with,” says Robert Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford Engineering School and author of "Good Boss, Bad Boss."
Sutton argues that taboo words have an emotional impact that replacements cannot equal, and suggests that when public figures like Barack Obama and Donald Trump throw about an expletive (or several in Trump’s case) it only helps them to appear more relatable. “There are times when cursing adds emphasis and does not necessarily hurt your image,” he says.
A study in 2006 by Cory R. Scherer and Brad J. Sagarin, then at Northern Illinois University, backs that up. In the study 88 university students were randomly assigned to listen to one of three speeches on the topic of high tuition rates. The speeches were similar in length and substance, with one notable difference: In one speech the speaker cursed at the beginning, in another at the end, and in the third, not at all. Results: The two orators who swore scored higher in persuasion and perceived passion than the one who didn’t. Better yet, the swearing did not affect the students’ perception of the speakers’ credibility.
“Swearing is a way of communicating that you are the most important person in the room,” adds Scherer.
While managers might be comfortable using a handful of celebratory expletives, lower-level employees are usually wary to follow suit. Still, in some instances swearing has been shown to band coworkers together.
In a 2007 study, “Swearing at Work and Permissive Leadership Culture: When Anti-Social Becomes Social and Incivility Is Acceptable,” researchers Yehuda Baruch and Stuart Jenkins, of University of East Anglia in the U.K., found that working swearing allows employees to express their feelings, develop relationships and build solidarity. They also noted that social swearing can help to blow off steam.
“If you use swearing in a humorous way, it can be a great tool for relieving stress in a situation and bringing the group closer,” agrees Scherer.
Vent that pain
Swearing can have even more salubrious effects. Researchers at Keele University in Staffordshire, England, reported in July 2009 that cursing can reduce physical pain. In their experiment, volunteers held their hands in ice water, first while cursing and then while using less objectionable phrases. Those who cursed were able to keep their hands submerged longer, an effect that was especially strong among volunteers who said they didn’t typically curse.
Yet the aversion to vulgarity persists. Michael Goodman, director of Corporate Communication International and the Baruch College master’s program in corporate communication points out that the potential for profanity to be interpreted in the wrong way is too high. “Some psychologists will say that cursing is a sign of immaturity as much as it is a sign of coping,” he says.
Goodman also notes that cussing run amok can lead to contentious, and even litigious outcomes. Baruch and Jenkins refer to a case where a personal assistant whose manager had described her as being “an intolerable bitch on a Monday morning,” sued for constructive dismissal and won.
“There are positive attributes to swearing, but ultimately it is a boundary line that most managers would not want to get confused by their subordinates,” says Goodman. “The risk of being offensive and creating a hostile work environment makes it a losing situation.”
Bottom line on profanity in the workplace: Use with caution — and don’t make an ass out of yourself.