Smart people understand why it pays to swear at work

Written by: Pilita Clark
Published on: 24 Sep 2019

Does it matter if you swear a bit at work? What about the odd crassvulgarity?

These questions have been on my mind ever since a friend told me in vibrant detail how exuberantly a senior executive in her office swore.

I grew up on an Australian sheep farm and once worked on a fishing boat, but this was impressive stuff. Lavish gusts of filth, in person and on social media. It had been the subject of much gossip in my friend’s office but had not caused any obvious bother for the executive, who had been repeatedly promoted.

I thought of my friend’s story when Boris Johnson became Britain’s latest prime minister. Mr Johnson is well known for being an adulterous old Etonian with hair that looks as if a large cat just slept in it. But what also sets him apart is his mouth.

He has brushed off corporate fears about Brexit with the words “f**k business”. He has called the president of Turkey a “wankerer” (in a limerick where it had to rhyme with Ankara). He is especially fond of turds, a term he reportedly used most recently to describe Theresa May’s Brexit plan and the government of France.

None of this stopped him from becoming a member of parliament, the mayor of London or the British prime minister. In fact it probably helped him.

Researchers say people who swear can seem more honest, credible and persuasive. There is, of course, swearing and swearing. A US study that found profanity could be persuasive arrived at the conclusion after testing people’s reactions to “damn”, a word so mild it barely qualifies as an obscenity in many offices.

Context also matters. A four-letter-word howl at a jammed printer is more acceptable than one hurled at a boss. And when workers are asked if they approve of bad language in the office, they invariably say they do not.

Yet fruity language need not be an obstacle to career success, which is something a lot of smart business leaders have long understood.

JPMorgan Chase boss Jamie Dimon is the longest-serving bank chief executive on Wall Street and a bracingly blunt speaker in a sea of corporate timidity. He has publicly complained about the “stupid shit” in the US political system and the critics he has “pissed off”. A few months ago he chortled that, unsurprisingly, he sometimes leaves his bank’s lawyers and PR people “scared shitless”.

As it happens, finance is only the second-worst sector for swearing. It is slightly worse in the healthcare industry, data shows.

But does location matter? The other day, I did a cursory trawl through earnings call transcripts of S&P 500 and FTSE 100 companies since 2007 that revealed a trove of r-rated blather.

I had expected to find a lot more in the UK, where it has been claimed the average Brit swears 14 times a day. But I was wrong. In the US, a slew of executives have been “beating the shit” out of rivals for years, or deriding them for being “full of crap”, or gloating about having “kicked ass”.

A more extensive 2016 analysis of conference call transcripts by CNBC journalists in the US found the incidence of corporate profanity seemed to be on the rise that year compared with 2014 and 2015, though levels had been higher in previous years.

This chimes with the findings of academics, who spend an astonishing amount of time studying swearing. Hundreds of papers have been written on the topic since 1900, according to two experts who said — in 2012 — there was not much evidence the culture was deteriorating when it came to profanity. More recent US research suggests swearing might be on the rise at work, especially among millennials.

Either way, one should understand that no matter how old you are, where you live or where you work, there are some places where swearing is not only frowned on but illegal in public places.

The rapper 50 Cent discovered this a few years ago when he was fined for cursing onstage in the Caribbean island of St Kitts. He still thought the show a success, but in the memorable words of his representative, he was going to make sure that on any future trips to St Kitts, he “leaves the motherf**kers in the United States”.