Don’t swear!

Some years ago, when I used to teach English at a prominent multinational company based in Finland, I had a group of three students every week – a technical writer, an engineer, and a sales guy. The first two were quiet in the endearing way that only Finns can be, and I really had to encourage them to talk. But it was hard to get the sales guy to shut up – he was very extraverted and loved to tell entertaining stories. 

Unfortunately, he also loved to swear.  Every week, when I’d ask him about his weekend, he’d say something like this: “I took my f*ing customers out on my f*ing boat to my f*ing cottage and we all got f*ing drunk. It was f*ing awesome! Those guys can f*ing drink!”

Already shy, the writer and the engineer were even more intimidated by this bravado, and his colourful language made them blush.

Swearing was a part of daily life when I grew up in Australia, and still is. People there swear a lot, and it’s not easy to embarrass me with language. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with swearing itself. It’s just words. Words can even lose their strength when you hear them too often. But words do have meaning and context. In my language class, I felt uncomfortable and my students were blushing because the meaning and context were not appropriate. I have not written those words in full in this blog for exactly that reason.

Generally speaking, swearing has no place in day-to-day business.

Why not?

Let’s consider what swearing is. It’s the use of profanity – forbidden words that hold a lot of power. In most parts of the world and in most languages, children have been taught from an early age that using certain words is bad, and this produces a feeling of disgust in many adult people when they hear them or read them. 

But words that were considered bad not so long ago can change in strength. When the movie Gone with the Wind first came out in 1939, Rhett Butler’s famous line “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” was controversial. Today, it sounds almost innocent.

Mostly, swearing covers social taboos such as sex (e.g. f*), bodily functions (e.g. sh*), religion (e.g. the aforementioned “damn”), and words describing social groups (e.g. the n-word). In many countries, people feel the group-based swear words are the worst, because they are specifically meant to cause harm and divide people. Here in Finland, I’ve managed to offend some people when I’ve used “perkele”, which roughly translates as a colloquial word for the Christian devil. Even though people are not very religious these days, it still feels bad to many.

Let’s consider why we swear. It’s a strong expression of emotion that other words can’t convey. If you hit your thumb with a hammer, you’re going to say something strong, because it hurts! When an unexpected event causes sudden physical or psychological pain, it can generate strong, instant emotion inside you, so you swear. Sometimes we do it to express amazement, like when a street magician performs an astonishing trick. But it’s frequently due to negative emotions. Consider your most recent stressful emotional experience. You probably swore at about the time when it happened, and maybe afterwards in your frustration. 

However, adult people who are in control of their emotions don’t swear much.

Who swears most often? Teenagers are renowned for swearing a lot because they want to impress their peers, it’s an act of rebellion against the adult figures who want to control them, and they are learning to control their emotions. Usually they grow out of it.

Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay became famous for swearing on his cooking shows. Being offensive was his gimmick to draw people to his programme. A lot of comedians swear to sound edgy, rappers do it to be cool, and the bad guys in movies often swear a lot to sound tough, because not caring what other people think is part of playing those roles. 

It could be that the sales guy in my English class didn’t feel the strength of what he was saying because he wasn’t swearing in his native language. Being vulgar in a second language doesn’t have the power of your mother tongue. Maybe he’d been inured to it, since he’d heard English swearing in so many films and done it so often himself. 

But other people who hear it don’t always see it that way, especially if you appear to be fluent. They think that you should know better. 

I can promise you that most people don’t appreciate frequent swearing in a business context. Because it’s a way to express strong emotions, you’re going to come across as aggressive, insensitive and frustrated if you swear a lot with your customers. People want you to be in control of yourself when they’re working with you. They won’t want to discuss important issues and negotiate, because they’ll believe you’re thinking with feelings rather than facts. Sensible adults are not impressed by swearing and won’t do business with you because they think you’re “cool”. In fact (although research does not confirm it), many people believe that those who swear a lot are stupid.

This is not the impression you want to give your customers. Keep your language clean and mannered, and you will project an image of intelligence, ability and diplomacy. Swearing is not necessary.