The art of communication is a delicate dance, especially at work. When you apologize for being late, is it diminishing or kind? When you start sentences with “I think,” are you being timid or merely welcoming of another’s opinion? When you rephrase something someone just said for the group’s improved understanding, are you being kind or arrogant? And, what about our seeming fixation and fondness for that closeted, coveted, crude talk — profanity?
Among the many linguistic nuances that color our conversations, one topic can stir up quite a debate — profanity. Does it have to tarnish our professional reputation, or can it make us more relatable? And why is it that use of expletives is increasingly popular in America, according to a recent story, “Curses! Why All The Crude Talk?” in The Wall Street Journal?
Research suggests that profanity and taboo talk is an emotional language tool, offering a cathartic release that helps people cope with stress, express strong emotions, or even alleviate physical pain. It's like an emotional pressure valve, releasing pent-up feelings and sometimes giving a brief adrenaline rush that can increase pain tolerance, something scientists have termed the “hypoalgesic effect of swearing.”
Swearing can also serve as a powerful emotional amplifier, helping us vent and signal the intensity of our feelings in a way that other words might not. It can make us feel heard and understood, and sometimes, it can feel empowering, representing a strong stance, a refusal to be silenced, or a way of reclaiming power in a difficult situation.
But at the same time, profanity can rattle people, and come across as disrespectful and sloppy, or discriminatory and harassing. At Alphy, we’re building a suite of AI tools called Reflect to flag communication that may be harmful and guide people to language that is helpful. If you are using Reflect in Gmail and type the F-bomb, this the feedback you would get:
Communications expert Kathryn Lancioni notes that there are times when use of certain profane words can connect and humanize us, serving as an emotional punctuation mark.
“It’s absolutely true that certain words can make you a part of the pack or team,” Lancioni says. “That is especially the case on Wall Street and for the most part across the financial services industry. But, it isn't as dominant today as it used to be. It's important to understand the tolerance for it amid your team and within your organization."
Indeed, the impact of swearing depends on cultural, social, and personal norms. What one person finds liberating, another might find offensive. When navigating the world of workplace profanity, err on the side of caution. Language is a powerful tool, building either bridges or walls.
Julian Guthrie is the founder & CEO of Alphy.
Reflect AI by Alphy is a SaaS platform that flags harmful language, including topic, tone, “isms,” confidence, mindset and appropriateness. Our AI language classifier detects risks in emails prior to send, flags conversational missteps (and successes) in video meetings in real-time, and upskills individual communication with targeted and personalized microlearning.