Friday, November 22, 2013

Is it OK to swear at work?

Frankly, my dear, I don't give a !@#$%

So said Rhett (Clark Gable) to Scarlett in ‘Gone with the Wind' in 1939. This line was voted the number one movie line of all time by the American Film Institute in 2005.

One reason for its infamy was that it contained a swear word - just about unheard of in a movie or on-stage in those days.

Fast forward to today: swearing is commonplace - on the street, at work, on TV, at the movies and on stage. In fact I just saw "Riflemind" by Andrew Upton - and by the end of that play I wondered if there were any words in the English language other than foul ones!

While it's acceptable to many, some people are still uncomfortable with this form of communication. (If you need to some alternative ways to express angst at work, look here).

But maybe you should keep on or even take up swearing. What if it's good for you?

Swearing at work - a stress management tool?

Organizations have a range of approaches to swearing at work. Some workplaces don't directly address it. In others, a code of conduct might require employees to treat each other with respect, courtesy and without harassment. Or a term of the employment contract might be to uphold the values, integrity and reputation of the company.

The problem is that such general wording in policies can cause problems as everyone has a different standard, and the whole issue can become very subjective and very personal.

Let it all hang out - it's good for you

So it was interesting to read some research that says swearing at work can be of benefit to staff; that the use of expletives helps employees let off steam, boosts morale and can reduce stress. In fact, Yehuda Baruch, professor of management at the University of East Anglia warned bosses that any moves to prevent workers from swearing could have a negative impact.

Fascinating assertion. So how far do you go? Is it OK to swear out loud in the lunch room? At a meeting? At a peer? At a junior staff member? At the boss? At the customer?

The professor answers with this: "In most scenarios, in particular in the presence of customers or senior staff, profanity must be seriously discouraged or banned."

"Managers need to understand how their staff feel about swearing. The challenge is to master the art of knowing when to turn a blind eye to communication that does not meet with their own standards."

Not helpful Professor - better look at their amygdalae

Personally I don't think that's too helpful as a guide for managers. So I looked to see what I could find out about how the brain processes swearing to see if there are any clues there. Steven Pinker in his book "The Stuff of Thought" (Allen Lane) says that swearing makes the brain pay attention.

Pinker considers that words' literal meanings may be concentrated in the thinking part of the brain, the neocortex, especially in the left hemisphere. But their connotations are not just in the thinking area but linked to the amygdala, which as we know is a primitive area of the brain that helps to give memories emotional content.

The research reports that in brain scans, the amygdala lights up when a person sees an angry face or hears an unpleasant word such as a taboo swear word. These evoke emotional responses and even reading a swear word causes the brain to involuntarily sit up and pay attention. In other words, what I call The Almond Effect® in action.


And I realize now that this reaction is exploited by retail clothing brands such as FCUK (French Connection).

Every time you use or hear a swear word or something that  looks or sounds like one, your limbic system quickly assesses what it's hearing and gives an emotional whack to the person who hears it.

Do we want to allow emotional whacking at work?

Well we don't allow physical whacking at work, so why would we allow or encourage more ‘mental' whacking at work than already goes on? If we encourage people to swear at work as a way to manage stress, could we be doing more overall harm than good?

Even if the swearer is using the language as part of their everyday vocabulary and/or does not mean it aggressively - we can't know how it will impact on anyone hearing it because we don't know how the listeners' amygdalae react to swearing.

What's acceptable?

I asked some people how they felt at work about people swearing around them or to them and they gave quite complicated responses. For example Greyer said it's OK for people to swear if they are just saying ‘s***' or the equivalent when they are late, get their finger jammed, receive an email from their boss and so on. 

But Jaime said he hates it when people are talking about others and saying things like: What an ‘a*!@#$%^". Or that f*** *** etc. Reeta said she couldn't care less.

Then Greyer added the swearers don't even have to be aggressive when swearing to make her feel really uncomfortable. It can just be their everyday language but all the same, Greyer hates it.

These and many more examples just confirmed for me that, whether swearing at work is acceptable and useful as a stress management tool, it is so context and individually driven as to be almost impossible to resolve.

Why don't you ask the people around you when, where and with whom wearing is and is not acceptable at work. I am sure you'll get a huge range of responses.

Add the look on their faces

Usually when people swear, the accompanying look on their face is one of anger, irritation, annoyance, embarrassment etc. All these looks are fear-based expressions. And that can be a challenge. Some other research confirms what we are probably already aware of: our brains process a look of fear on someone's face much faster than any other expression.

Here's how the researcher, Dr David Zald, a psychologist from Vanderbilt University in Nashville put it: "Fearful eyes are a particular shape. You get more of the whites of the eye showing. That may be the sort of simple feature that the amygdala can pick up on, because it's only getting a fairly crude representation. That fearful eye may be something that's relatively hardwired in there."

So the angry face (or swear word) may trigger The Almond Effect in others. And we know that emotions are contagious. So if someone is swearing, even if they are not afraid, their words may trigger off fear reactions in others and the consequent aggressive/defensive reactions, i.e. feelings of discomfort, annoyance, irritation or even anger.

Stress relief or fear provoker?

Most workplaces encourage communication, teamwork and empathy. Swearing at or around others doesn't seem to me to be a good enabler!

I think that Professor Baruch's warning that any moves to prevent workers from swearing could have a negative impact may be true for the individual who needs to deal with his or her ‘Almonds' but if they need to swear I'd be encouraging the stressed worker to find a private space and not let it all rip in front of anyone at all.

Apart from the apprehension it might cause in others, it also makes you look like someone not in control and with a very limited vocabulary.

The better option for managers

So do you personally swear at work? Is that what you want others to do? Do you have any explicit boundaries in place? Do you know how swearing affects others in your team? Are you sure when you say: it doesn't bother anyone?

Remember from discussions on mirror neurons that your staff will take their behavior cues from what they observe their bosses doing?

So stay calm yourself. Model what it means to be emotionally intelligent enough to consider the impact of emotional outbursts on others and how that might make them feel and react. Show how it is possible to stay in control without swearing or doing anything that sets off a fear reaction in others.

Remind yourself that emotionally intelligent leaders are the ones who get their people to perform and remain engaged.

Work with your team on dealing with the stress or angst triggers and situations that trigger their amygdalae in the first place. Get them to identify the stress points. Coach them in ways to avoid stress altogether. Keep it in perspective. Breathe. Count to 10. 

Of course, you could just say that's all too hard so ‘@#$%^ it!" J

Please feel free to forward this to a colleague

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