Cursing is a surefire way to discredit yourself in the workplace, or is it? We’ve all heard the advice and seen the surveys that cursing will hurt your career. But cursing can actually help it, granted you do it right.
“Cursing successfully is an art,” says Richie Frieman, an etiquette expert and the Modern Manners Guy blogger. “It’s how comedians are able to do it and make a punch line rock the audience.”
Cursing in the workplace is bad when it’s used as the last line of defense in an argument, used to defame a coworker or is used distastefully when telling a joke or story. A recent example of cursing gone wrong is former Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz, who was known for her colorful language. In her first public comments after being fired she called the board “doofuses” who “f***** me over.”
According to career experts, Bartz use of foul language throughout her tenure at Yahoo sent the wrong message to her employees. Rather than creating a relaxed atmosphere, it created a bit of hysteria.
“Yahoo was a highly charged environment and she did it in a way that magnified or spotlighted the tension and showed the tremendous pressure she was under,” says Mark Jaffe, president of Wyatt & Jaffe, the executive search firm.
But if used correctly, cursing can signal it’s time to dispense with formality and that we are going to talk candidly, says Jaffe. It also levels the playing field at least for that moment in time.
“Cursing can signal that we are going to be direct and unvarnished and tell each other what we really think,” says Jaffe. “It creates a sense of democracy and equality if you do it tastefully.”
Workers have to be careful when cursing to ensure it doesn’t make people uncomfortable or isn’t done in a way that makes people feel like they have to curse, too. It can never be used as an epithet or used in a crude or vulgar manner.
“Never use any words literally or in a suggestive way and never use it at someone or against a person or organization,” says Jaffe. For instance, it’s ok to say we’re going to kick their asses on the next challenge or let’s skip over the meeting which we know is 85% bullshit and get to the solutions, but it’s not ok to say those F****** at XYZ Corp.
The timing of your cursing will also determine if it helps or hurts your career. If you aren’t in a position where you need to break the ice, then you don’t want to be the first one to curse, just like you wouldn’t want to be the first one to loosen your tie in a meeting. But if you are charged with breaking down some of the formality and structure, then Jaffe says it can be an effective strategy.
The environment you are in will also dictate if you can curse successfully. If you work for a very staid and proper company, chances are cursing during a management meeting isn’t going to fly. But if the company is more lax, then it can be a powerful tool and rallying cry.
“To use it well and use it to get ahead, you have to be in a field or company that allows it and/or approves of it,” says Frieman. “The only way to get ahead in a job is to be accepted by the people around you and if they curse and you can pull it off, that is when it will work.”
The frequency in which you curse also matters. If curse words are flying out of your mouth left and right, it will quickly lose its impact. But if you use it sparingly, it can actually be an effective way to drive home the point. It can also be that last word that makes the other person back down in an argument granted you rarely curse.
“It could be the driving force of a point or the saddest attempt to be an authority figure,” says Frieman. “It only works when you know the audience you are in.”