Is It Okay to Curse at Work?
How do women feel about cursing at work? I'm curious.
I'm not talking about one-on-one conversations among peers. As far as I can tell, we all curse when we're alone. I'm talking about meetings. Cursing in large, public, team meetings.
I've worked with a very senior guy who liked to punctuate his speech with salty metaphors. He could captivate a room full of people like no one I've seen. It was entertaining and charming, and it was obvious that language was the source of his power. Except he had this old school tic that always made me cringe—before swearing, he would first apologize to the women in the room.
Oh, their virgin ears.
It was as if he came from another world where women weren't allowed in meetings. Weren't even allowed in the building where the meetings took place. A world where women stayed in their castles and saw men at balls and curtsied and all that.
And now, suddenly he finds that women have infiltrated everything. It's too late to change his style and temper his speech, so he says those words anyway, and just apologizes to the women. "These guys must have some pretty—[looks at woman] pardon me—some pretty fucking big cojones!"
The apology is supposed to be chivalrous, but it's also offensive. And it's awkward. Regardless of what he’s saying, why stop mid-sentence to call attention to the gender of the people in the room?
On one hand, if this guy really felt the need to apologize, then perhaps he shouldn't have said what he said. But that would be the worst possible outcome, because this guy was an artist and censoring him would be criminal.
I had the pleasure of working with another language artist about five years ago, during my first study at McKinsey. I worked in a small conference room with five other teammates. There was a French guy on the project and he did a lot of the financial modeling and analysis. Whenever he ran into a snag in the data, he would burst out swearing in French. These tirades came about once a week and it was always the best part of the week. Swearing in French is beautiful, it's delicious, it's poetry.
Sure there was a language barrier, so we didn't know exactly what he was saying, but it was clear that he wanted to do something violent and sexual to his laptop.
He didn’t apologize to the women in the room, and they didn't seem to mind at all.
Now, I realize I may not have the best perspective on this, not being on the receiving end. So, I asked some of my women friends how they felt about cursing at work. Their responses were interesting. One told me: "When someone says something 'inappropriate' around me (or any a woman)—usually involving balls, boobs or the word 'pussy'—do not look at me to see how I'll respond before you react! I am not a delicate flower. I went to college. And, I can probably swear you under the table."
But another pointed out that she was uncomfortable with sexually charged metaphors like "show some leg, open the kimono, get them to bend over, drop their pants, make this sexy, etc." Now, I love those metaphors—they keep work exciting and interesting. But for my female friend it was just the opposite. "It's unnecessary, uncomfortable, and is often used as a locker-room bonding thing between men, but puts women at a distance," my colleague explained to me.
In my opinion, if we censor everything suggestive out of our language, we're nothing more than robots. Sure, we should think about our word choice—but I say that we all strap one on, or grow some ovaries, or whatever, and keep work language interesting. Yes, we should be respectful of our colleagues—but that doesn’t mean that we all talk like Mr. Rogers, and it definitely doesn’t mean apologizing to the women.
And if you're going to apologize—if you really feel the need—please don't preface with "Excuse my French." I fucking hate that.