Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Swearing at work - a guide (ferrier.me.uk)
56 points by tommorris on Apr 23, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 72 comments

Surely this is the right time to quote mr. Stephen Fry.

"Swearing is a really important part of one's life. It would be impossible to imagine going through life without swearing and without enjoying swearing... There used to be mad, silly, prissy people who used to say swearing was a sign of a poor vocabulary -such utter nonsense. The people I know who swear the most tend to have the widest vocabularies and the kind of person who says swearing is a sign of a poor vocabulary usually have a pretty poor vocabulary themselves... The sort of twee person who thinks swearing is in any way a sign of a lack of education or a lack of verbal interest or -is just a fucking lunatic... I haven't met anybody who's truly shocked at swearing, really, they're only shocked on behalf of other people. Well, you know, that's preposterous... or they say 'it's not necessary'. As if that should stop one doing it! It's not necessary to have coloured socks, it's not necessary for this cushion to be here, but is anyone going to write in and say 'I was shocked to see that cushion there, it really wasn't necessary'? No, things not being necessary is what makes life interesting -the little extras in life."

> people who used to say swearing was a sign of a poor vocabulary -such utter nonsense.

Well, it's plausible. There are only a few common swear words, so if a person uses those many more times than other people, and if they aren't actually talking a lot more, they must be using fewer other words, potentially replacing hundreds of descriptive adjectives and adverbs with the same five or seven words.

I suppose Stephen Fry hasn't noticed, but many people who use several swear words in every sentence actually don't seem to have a large working vocabulary, and even if they technically know a more precise word for what they mean, they have to think a bit to find it, as though non-swearing was a peculiar dialect.

Using swear words for emphasis doesn't seem correlated in this way, to me.

>I suppose Stephen Fry hasn't noticed, but many people who use several swear words in every sentence actually don't seem to have a large working vocabulary.

What Fry noticed is that many people use several swear words in every sentence period full stop <blink>.</blink> He's claiming it's orthogonal to working vocabulary size.

I addressed that in the previous sentence: if it's orthogonal to working vocabulary size, then it must be positively correlated with verbosity. That could be true, but I can't tell from personal experience.

Only if vocabulary size already has some specific correlation with verbosity but it's easy to use many words or very few words regardless of vocab size.

Something can be "truly fucking staggeringly-ass colossal" or it can be "fucking tall". Something can just as easily be "fucking colossal" or "god damn motherfucking-ass tall".

Yeah if you're the sort that "truly staggeringly colossal" comes naturally to you'd see a difference in emphasis, but they're equivalent to Joe Shitpack.

Ah, but some things are "amazing" while other things are "amazeballs".

Oh poppycock! You need to watch more british TV, or just talk to more brits. Few swear words, don't make me laugh.

Those guys can make "sandals" into a swear word.[1]

Let me refer you to this 5 minute clip of A Bit of Fry and Laurie. It features a particularly colourful use of swear words. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oVkckG6zw6I

[1] of course not that only brits are good at this, but it seems to me that americans are just particularly bad at it and they tend to cast a poor light on the English language's flexibility. It's rather sad really.

When people object to swearing, I don't think it's the use of emphasis that they're objecting to. Nor is it that an exclamation is being made (if it is, as in "Oh poppycock!", above). Rather, it's the implied debasement of something private or sacred. This enhances the emphasis, but it's the method rather than the goal that offends those who are offended by swearing.

As such, making up words to use as emphasis words doesn't actually offend, which is largely what makes the bit you link to funny, as far as I can tell, and it's why "darn" and "dang" are much less offensive even to those who would censor swearing.

Because I'm disagreeing with you above I just wanted to explicitly state that I agree with this. Particularly the second paragraph.

Profanity needs cultural weight not just a certain tone of voice.

In English at least. Can't speak with any authority on other linguistic cultures.

There's an old Irish pastime of insulting someone to their face without resorting to blatant profanity, and if you've ever heard it you might reconsider your position.

An excellent guide, that I would tend to agree with. I would also like to offer up this quote from General Patton:

"When I want my men to remember something important, to really make it stick, I give it to them double dirty. It may not sound nice to some bunch of little old ladies at an afternoon tea party, but it helps my soldiers to remember. You can't run an army without profanity; and it has to be eloquent profanity. An army without profanity couldn't fight it's way out of a piss-soaked paper bag."

Intriguingly the advice given to British officers is not to swear at those under your command.

That is what non commissioned officers are for. And they are much better at it.

In the early 1980's, while serving in the US Army, we sang some rather explicit cadence calls, and this practice was curtailed by the increasing presence of females in the ranks.

  Stomp with the left and drag your right!"
  If you like the pussy tight!
Our NCO's were masters of creative profanity. But that's an infantry unit, not an office.

For some people swearing is natural and cultural. For me it's just part of my vernacular, and to varying levels that's true of all my colleagues and most of my friends. I don't stop to plan when swearing would best fit or use it tactically, it just comes out in sentences. When I'm hungry there's a good chance I'm actually "fucking starving", and if I'm referencing someone who can be a bit annoying there's a good chance he's "a bit of a cunt".

However I do have an automatic filter to tone down or remove swearing based on who I'm talking to. Around a new person, especially work-related, I'll cut it out completely until I have the feeling they're comfortable with it. In particular around clients, there are some who I know well enough to swear at my normal levels around, others I know well but still keep swearing away. I guess sometimes I think about this stuff but for the most part it's just my subconscious knowing when not to swear. Interestingly I very rarely swear when talking to my parents, despite the fact that my mum reels through "fuck bugger damn shit" when something goes wrong (so not regularly but maybe once every few days) and my dad swears... a lot.

When someone swears a lot it just removes the strength of that swearing. When I call someone a cunt or someone calls me a cunt we judge their meaning not on the word but the tone of voice, most of the time it's not at all offensive - but obviously I wouldn't just hop onto HN and type "you're a cunt" to somebody as contextually it's completely different.

As a resident of the USA, I have to express how much I love the English (UK) swear words. Unfortunately, I think calling someone "a bit of a cunt" here would be taken somewhat more seriously than across the pond.

Your comment made me laugh. As a Brit, my reaction to that word depends on context, it will jar me if I'm not expecting to hear it, e.g. from someone I'm not familiar enough with, but it definitely gets thrown around a lot impunity too.

Ugh, I hate people using the word "cunt" willy-nilly. It's the one word we have left that will still make people flinch and has any force left in it, but many people using it for ordinary situations are making sure that doesn't stay that way.

I like a language to have a swearword that gives people an emotional response. Something that you can use and people can say "oh shit, the other guy is fucked now". The nuclear bomb of swearwords.

The only word that approaches that that's left in English is "cunt", but that's also quickly losing its power. The word "nigger" is also supremely powerful (I bet you flinched when you read it, and I'm dreading the consequences this comment will have while I'm writing it), but it's completely useless for universal swearing due to its racial implications, and also completely useless in general due to the fact that racism is fucking retarded and doesn't even make any sense.

So, please don't overuse "cunt".

Excuse my French.

Are you American?

'cunt' has largely lost its power here in the UK. You still wouldn't say it in front of your mother, but even my very middle class mother drops the odd F-bomb now and again. 'nigger' is deeply unpleasant but I don't flinch when reading it on the internet because I spent time on a few sites (in the old days...) where people thought it was clever to say as often as possible.

I was at a gig the other week that ended with the (dire, dreadful, untalented) band singing "Cunt, cunt, cunt, pussy cunt!" and looking just so pleased with themselves, like they'd just done something so revolutionary and intellectual. Maybe 40 years ago guys...

I think the only punch that's left is making compound words. And even then 'pigfucker' is sort of funny.

> Are you American?

Nope, Greek. I know "cunt" has lost its power in the UK (hell, Charlie Brooker says it five times per show), but I think americans still flinch a bit.

I find that cunt can still be just as powerful if you say it the right way - maybe over time that will change, but if it does I suspect new words will appear which are as strong.

I also disagree about nigger, it didn't make me flinch at all despite the fact that I know neither racists who use it, nor black people who use it about themselves (i.e. I don't hear it regularly). I'm not sure I even consider it a swear word, just a racist word.

There are always new or old words to replace to castrated ones. I'll bet most people will pause at you calling them ass nugget or dullard, for instance.

I'm British. I did a stint on a factory floor. Oh My! The language!

The article is correct. Never aim words at people. Be sensitive to those around you, some of them will be deeply upset by bad language. And be creative. English is a glorious language and the range of swearing isn't limited to a few F-Bombs.

I've been spending a bit of time on a building site recently. The brickies. Oh fuck... it seems one of their job functions is to lower the tone as far as it will go.

"English is a glorious language and the range of swearing isn't limited to a few F-Bombs"

Malcolm Tucker!

[Edit: Just noticed that could be rhyming slang]

I've got a boss, when he's talking something up, every other word out of his mouth is "fuck".

It's not abusive, but it isn't useful. Extolling the virtues of a product by saying "it's fucking awesome" doesn't tell me anything about that product or why it's so fucking awesome or why I should be so excited about it.

Luckily I work in a situation where swearing is completely acceptable.

>Almost everyone in Britain will blanch at "Cunt".

Really? Britain is one of the very few places I've found that doesn't seem to flinch at the word. It's almost common place.

You can get away with 'Cunt' in the UK but its something you would only call a close friend, not a new acquaintance (whereas calling someone a fucker with a grin is almost always fine)

Oh yes, I wouldn't dream of doing that haha. I just mean that it seems cunt is more 'acceptable' in the UK. In the US I've seen people REALLY offended by someone even saying it while it's not in reference to them.

In fact, in Scotland it can be heard as a term of endearment.

In Scotland you can get away with using it to the police as long as you inflect it in a half decent way.

You'll be told to fuck off mind you, but it is all banter.

* I accept no responsibility for any foreigners who get locked up on this advice. Do not try it without a Scottish accent.

I think it's probably safe to leave it as ``Do not try it''. I have a Scottish accent, and I certainly wouldn't dare try it.

Maybe it's a Central Belt thing? In the Highlands, you wouldn't get away with saying that to the police.

It all comes down to whether you are a good cunt or a bad cunt.

I haven't sworn prolifically in almost 30 years ... right around the time I decided I should attempt to use the most obscure words in the dictionary. The strange thing is, I think swearing (or not) is simply a habit and that, if you want to, you can change your habits.

I should also note that there has been plenty of swearing at the places I've worked over those 30 years, but I've only found a very small percentage of it offensive, so I'd suggest that the article is reasonably accurate.

An interesting aspect in Denmark is that English profanities don't really raise eyebrows in professional settings (or at least "fuck" and "shit" don't), but swearing in Danish in a workplace or university has to be done much more carefully, and can come off as either offensive or crude or both. By swearing primarily with loanwords, it seems to come off as somehow softer or less "really" swearing.

edit: Was googling to see if I could find a good link on the subject. I didn't, but did find this event I'm now sad that I missed, http://nordisksprogkoordination.org/dokumenter-til-download/...

It's similar in Poland; you can talk dirty in English all day long, but if you actually swear in Polish, you're likely gonna to raise some eyebrows. My guess is it's because throughout the years people got used to profanities in TV and music, which is mostly American.

On the other hand, you can swear by saying things like "Ravioli di prosciutto e mortadella" and sound like you are really quite mad, if you just make the consonants hard enough. Particularly the R's need to cut like a chainsaw.

That's interesting because so many Danes speak English. It's less interesting to swear in Danish in the USA, where to a first approximation nobody within earshot will speak Danish.

(Circumstances will vary wildly, of course.)

That cunt nailed it. To some degree anyway.

curiously, although the article mentions that american research is more critical of swearing than uk research, it doesn't consider cultural differences. as a brit working in an american company i have learnt that swearing is much less tolerated over there. after being met with stony silence a couple of times i no longer do it.

would love to see nationalitites added to posts here. i suspect many posts at this hour (early for the usa, and generally pro-swearing) are from the uk....

He doesn't really cite or give evidence of any American research about profanity in the work place. The first link is to an interview with "Vistage speaker, Craig Weber" which credits authorship to Vistage and Weber consulting. It's an opinion piece.

The second link is to a study that consisted of surveying 30 men and 30 women about the efficacy of speeches given to basketball teams by a coach. The speeches were fictional and some included profanity and some did not. Apparently the 30 men had a tendency to rate the speeches with profanity (if they thought the audience was women) as less effective. That's it. It had nothing to do with the workplace or the language used by employees or even team mates.

It's primary focus and a lot of the research that study cites has to do with gender roles and profanity. Not really anything to do with what role profanity plays in the work place.

It does cite a Dutch study that found profanity makes witnesses more believable in legal proceedings. But again - not really anything about the work place.

The English research is a single paper that used case studies. I'm not paying to find out the details but the fact that their press release for the study says, "Prof Baruch said their aim was to challenge leadership styles and suggest ideas for best practice." makes me wonder about the value. That, to me, sounds like they went into the study with a desired outcome.

I'm sympathetic with the article from a common sense approach but I think that dressing any of it up as being based on science is a bit of a reach.

American in the UK.

I've had sexual harassment training in the US, and a lot of standards are different between the two countries.

At least 5 things happen at work every day, that if they happened at one of the companies I worked for in the US, the people involved would be brought to HR.

I find workmates in the UK to be more matey at work, where as in the US, you are co-workers at work, and mates only when you leave work.

Depends very much on the workplace, and a lot of companies are becoming increasingly `American' in their attitudes. it tends to be a function of size as well: bigger companies are generally much stricter than smaller ones.

As a Brit who was in Australia for a few years I found the same sort of thing, I was amazed at how far it went (and not just the guys). Perhaps a USA->Australia emigration would be particularly eye-opening!

I once got read the riot act by an Intel attack lawyer when I tried to employ humour in a conference call many years ago (I believe my exact words were "I have no idea what a quad-pumped AGP port is but it sounds splendid - I'll have two").

I'm very careful about employing humour with lawyers these days.

Its all very easy with words like fck and cnt, best avoid unless you are very sure of it, but the problem I come across is defining what actually is a swear word. Where is the line drawn? A particular issue being words that offend religious folk. "oh for god's sake" is to me completely soft, but I have come across some people who are upset by that. But, is that swearing, or just offending? Which is worse?

Most of the time I find that once you get to know a work place, you find that it varies, as you would expect. Different people have different standards so you need to get to know them. I don't think any one starts off swearing in front of a boss, but if you work on say a building site, you'd probably get swearing quick before the other decide you are a posh git who needs de-bagging, or something.

The only time I personally think it really matters is when dealing with the public, customers or clients. But if you man a phone, or are out in public, swearing is a total no no. But, I suppose even then, there are loads of exceptions. In the work place I see it as a personal 1-2-1 negotiation over time. Or to put it another way, we individually learn when, where and who to swear in front of.

To be honest though, I wonder if you are at more risk by offering opinion in the work place. I know I would find it harder to work with people of certain political views than any one who swears.

Shouting "Fuck you computer!", standing up and storming out of the room was acceptable (but infrequent) practice at one of my previous workplaces. Nobody seemed to mind.

I think I swear a little to easily. I used the C word at a barbecue the other week, when I dropped a sausage in the coals. In front of all my friends' children.... Ooops.

Which C word?

Edit: link instead http://www.noswearing.com/dictionary/c

Why, 'custard' of course!

Actually I meant the one so offensive to Americans that even the obscenity-filled South Park balks at saying it. I must remember this when I travel to the US next week.

``Crumbs''? Or, if you're a fan of Oor Wullie, ``Crivens''?



Working on a trading desk is a great experience in creative profanity - as well as discussion of the various things that dildos can do to various parts of the body, fecal expulsion, and so forth. It's tons of fun.

In Ireland (where I live), swearing in front of someone generally means you regard them as an equal. It's like calling someone "dude"

Or just don't.


> ...swearing hides something. Maybe a low IQ, or low self esteem or some other personality issue.

citation fucking needed

Professionalism is about doing a job well and in a responsible manner. It's not about doing a job while maintaining a respectable appearance. Appearing respectable doesn't hurt, of course, but it's not a requirement for being professional.

Let's put it this way. Suppose you have two people. One has a perfectly professional appearance and demeanor. The other one is perfectly professional in the decisions he makes and the work he produces, but he curses a lot and wears shorts and slippers. I consider the second person more of a professional than the first. A database administrator who wears a tie but who neglects to test his backup procedures is less professional than the stereotypical Metallica-t-shirt-sporting DBA with questionable facial hair who does. Whether somebody curses or wears flip-flops would be a tie-breaker at best.

There is undoubtedly a strong relationship between appearing professional and high conscientiousness. As a general rule, conscientious people make for better employees. So whether somebody swears or dresses well serves as a proxy for the thing we're really interested in. To elevate this instrumental value and to turn it into a terminal value is therefore a mistake.

Is that a badge of office for serious DBAs? I met one chap (senior DBA for a large financial company here in Scotland) who looked identical to that description and who greeted me on first meeting with "Awright ye big poof".

Swearing is a proven analgesic. I can't see taking that away from people; it would leave people angrier and meaner than they would be without a "what an asshole" after a call with an annoying person.


Everyone where I work swears occasionally, no one minds.

It's particularly insulting and prejudiced of you to attribute negative traits to people that swear. If you can't prove the causation (or at least support a correlation), shut up, because you're wrong.

When I hear people using curse words regularly I form the opinion that such individuals lack the eloquence to express themselves without resorting to profanity. Thus I hold these people in low regard, as I highly value literacy, and most educated people are able to avoid profanity while conveying their thoughts. That said, I do use profanity from time to time informally, but I refrain from doing so in a professional setting.

I'm able to avoid profanity while conveying my thoughts.

But sometimes I quite like using profanity when expressing how utterly full of shit the "only stupid people swear" theory is.

This is the distinction I often find between Europe and America, the range of understood swear words up here - and the myriad ways they can be combined, means eloquent swearing is far more possible.

One of the most glorious scenes in the Matrix is the Merovingian swearing in French.

The Wire's "let's do a whole scene of F-bombs" was an amusing one off, but mainly as satire of the overwhelming nature of its use on the other side of the pond.

So I don't know if there's a formal name for this rhetorical strategy but you appear to be constructing a dichotomy that excludes people who use profanity from some imaginary high status group that you claim membership to. Exclusion being necessary because the actual membership of highly-(literate || eloquent) wouldn't let you in the group if you didn't attempt to preemptively dismiss their opinions.

I am in no way claiming inclusion to "some imaginary high status group" and I regularly commit grammatical errors which the truly and highly educated will readily recognize. Your premise of exclusion ignores the fact that my post above contains grammatical errors as referred to in my previous sentence. I strive towards excellence, but have much room for improvement.

> most educated people are able to avoid profanity while conveying their thoughts

Just because you can, doesn't mean you have to. This idea that swearing means you must somehow have an insufficient vocabulary or IQ is absolutely ludicrous. Language is there to be used.

It's true that some people use swear words as the bread for their vocabulary sandwich. I prefer to use them more like a fine mustard.

I grew up during the 60's and 70's, when words such as "ass," "bitch," and the like, were absolutely forbidden by my parents as well as by their peers. Today profanity is much more widely accepted, as evidenced by mainstream media's lessening of censorship regarding certain bits of profanity. I dislike mustard, and find that the words "fine," and "mustard," are mutually exclusive. (lol)

Nevertheless, just because you have an aversion to profanity doesn't mean that it is anybody's responsibility to avoid it except your own. Your reaction to profanity is your own issue - it doesn't mean that the speaker is any less intelligent just because you happen to get offended.

Interestingly, what makes me cringe much more than any profanity is the use of gratuitous verbiage such as "such individuals". Why not just have said, "they"?

Had I used the word "they" in place of "such individuals," then Avashalom's inference regarding my creation of a dichotomy would be valid. By using the term "such individuals" I have not excluded myself from said group.

What about people that eloquently use profanity?

You are assuming something unproven.

So not a fan of The Thick of It then?


[Only TV series that I am aware of that has a "Swearing Consultant"].

>"If some cunt can fuck something up, that cunt will pick the worst possible time to fucking fuck it up cause that cunt's a cunt."

Oh Malcolm!

Empirical evidence, or just posturing?

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact