A Classroom Talking Point: Profanity in the Workplace

Occasionally, a student drops an f-bomb or other expletive. Many times, the student follows with, “Oops. Sorry. It slipped” or some sort of defense. Many other times, however, students do not realize what they have said until I bring it to their attention. Regardless, I usually follow with a suggestion that the student be more conscious of language and its effect on his or her professional image. These individual exchanges are the extent of the discussion.

Last week, though, I happened upon a blog post by Anne Kreamer in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network entitled “Why You Really Shouldn’t Curse at Work (Much).” Her post has led me to consider how I might incorporate a  discussion on the topic of profanity and professionalism into my courses.

Kreamer notes what BComm teachers already know:

Taboo words, with a couple of true taboo exceptions, have always been used sparingly to communicate powerful emotions, but when swearing becomes simply reflexive and ubiquitous—as it is today—those words cease to have much power or meaning. And when crude words do shock, the language deflects our focus from the serious issues at hand.

Kreamer explains that in business, some people may see profanity as a social or professional strategy—to fit in with a group, to establish their authority or dominance, or (especially for women) to show they are “one of the guys.” She also highlights how factors such as gender, race, ethnicity, education, status, context, intent, or speaker drive perceptions of the acceptability of the use of profanity. In addition, she enhances the discussion with many links to interesting contemporary articles and research on the topic, and many of the readers’ comments are interesting and insightful.

Business communication teachers could use Kreamer’s post and its links to ask students (many of whom have not had that first “real” job but who do have some work experience) about their perceptions of profanity in the workplace.

  • What do they think makes the use of profanity acceptable or unacceptable in the workplace? Is profanity ever acceptable in the workplace?
  • What are their perceptions of  the various people in their world (e.g., a man, a woman, a boss, a coworker, a popular entertainer, a politician) who use profanity? Why do students think they have these perceptions? That is, why might they perceive their coworkers’ use of profanity as acceptable but their boss’s use as tacky or unprofessional?
  • How might students be more aware of their own use of profanity and decrease their use of it?

As part of that discussion, instructors could challenge students’ assumptions or discuss them more fully using the articles that Kreamer links to.

Do you discuss workplace profanity in your classroom? If so, tell us how. We would like to hear your strategies.

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