Want to know how much the times they are a-changin'? Consider this: back in 1939, in the movie 'Gone With the Wind,' Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) turned to Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) and said those infamous words, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." The single utterance of one word -- "damn," considered "profane" by the Hollywood Production Code Commission -- cost producer David Selznick $5,000, a tidy sum in those days.
Fast forward to 2010. President Barack Obama is on national television commenting on the massive Gulf oil spill. Expressing his frustration, he wondered, "whose ass to kick." While mouths may have dropped open at this un-presidential uttering, his choice of profanity was mild compared to the changes that cursing, cussing, swearing and other euphemisms have had on modern-day American life.
Tongues looser on the job
And the workplace is no exception. Take Vice President Joe Biden, who dropped the "f-bomb" when congratulating Obama on the passage of his Health Care Plan. Biden did not set a precedent because, in the Bush Administration, Vice President Dick Cheney used the same word on the Senate floor to tell Sen. Patrick Leahy to, according to The Washington Times, "perform an anatomical sexual impossibility."
What does this mean for everyday workers? Is foul language becoming more acceptable in the workplace?
"I had just hired a young lady several years out of college to work on our help desk. I was applying a Novell patch to our server and she wanted to see how it was done," says IT supervisor Terence Mahendra. "Of course, what should have been an easy task didn't turn out that way as anyone in IT can attest to, so I kicked the chairs and dropped a few f-bombs -- not realizing that the young lady was still there listening to me rant and curse like a lunatic. When I realized it, I started apologizing profusely and said that is was unprofessional of me to act that way. She told me that she had held back from cursing several times since she started and now she knew she was going to be just fine working here. She was a lot more relaxed after that incident and we became good friends."
Mahendra's fellow employee's reaction is backed by two studies. According to a 2006 study in Psychology Press, Indecent influence: The positive effects of obscenity on persuasion, "obscenity may have its most positive effect when targeted at a congenial audience." Another study states, "Profanity in the workplace can be a morale booster and inspire a sense of team spirit." It depends, of course, on how it's done and at what levels.
"Social" or "annoyance" swearing can be effective in many office and workplace environments, while vulgar or abusive cursing should never be allowed." But, the study concludes, "by no means should employees ever use profanity in front of customers."
Who has the dirtiest mouths?
On surprising finding is that women swear more than men, especially in "mixed company." One theory is that this is a way for them to assert themselves. For example, Carol Bartz, CEO of Yahoo!, told her team that she'd "dropkick to f-ing Mars" anyone who was leaking information about the company. The backlash, however, is that woman who swear may be perceived as having "low moral standing."
Men, on the other hand, seem to get more respect when they swear.
Naturally, Web users have a lot to say on the subject of cursing the workplace. Erica Allison writes, "As an agency owner, I would be very upset if my assistant or anyone else working on a project with me represented us in a less than professional way. To me, swearing does not equate to professionalism."
Commenter "Ace" on the blog TheAntiSocialMedia.com, takes a different stance: "No-one is going to bat an eyelash at the guy swearing left-and-right, but when the prim-and-proper types throw out a 'shit,' you can bet they've got some extra eyes looking at them. It humanizes their efforts a bit more, plus it shows them stepping out of the box, if only for a second." He continues, "I'm a stickler for writing properly (hell, I proofread an e-mail to friends about Friday plans at least three or four times), and I know that swear words can definitely help get a point across. However, I don't think I'm ready to e-mail a co-worker with "Where's that f***ing report?"
Some workers suggest using alternate words in place of the profane. Commenter "Misha," on the same post suggests the colorful alternatives, "Son of a motherless goat," "Shut the front door!" or the old standby, "fudge."
But, more people tend to agree with Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, who said, "There's nothing like the word, "f**k". You can say 'go away,' 'shoo,' 'leave,' all you want, but nothing gets the point across like a good 'f*** off'.'"
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