During a recent conversation with colleagues about effective business communication, the topic arose as to whether it is okay to use a swear word or two in conversations with colleagues and clients. Having worked on several tradings desks at different banks, my experience likely reflects two extremes. At one financial institution, I traded foreign exchange spot and forward contracts and over-the-counter currency derivatives. As far as I know, there was no formal policy about language but the frequency with which certain four-letter words were spoken led me to believe that all was okay. Elsewhere, when I consulted with institutional investors and companies – helping them assemble hedges with futures, listed options and over-the-counter derivatives – profanity was verboten and considered déclassé at best and career-busting at worst.
In researching the topic of acceptable words and demeanor in business, with a particular emphasis on the import for the investment management industry, what I uncovered conveys a mixed bag about what makes sense when it comes to spicy utterances. According to “Why You Really Shouldn’t Curse at Work (Much),” Harvard Business Review contributor Anne Kreamer (December 27, 2011) writes that so many of us are hardened to foul language in business that its negative impact is often slight. (I think the same concept applies to the use of profanity in popular culture as well. Consider that the movie “The Wolf of Wall Street” is said to have set a profanity record with more than 500 instances of a four-letter word that starts with “f” and rhymes with “truck.”) Ms. Kreamer references interviews she conducted that support the strategic role of swearing “as an effective social tool that can enhance work relationships and allow women in particular to present an equal-to-men…identity.” Notably she cites research that bodes poorly for women who like to swear, explaining that they are often held in lower regard.
Last year, Bloomberg published the results of its review of thousands of conference calls held in the last decade and concluded that “CEO cursing spiked after the recession in 2009 and waned as the recovery strengthened.” Whether this portends an onslaught of bad words in the event of further weakening of financial markets remains to be seen. For those seeking job advice, writer Sarah Butcher provides five “golden rules for workplace cursing” (efinancialcareers.com, June 14, 2013). These include the following:
- Evaluate whether cursing is deemed acceptable as part of the organizational zeitgeist and adapt accordingly;
- Make it about issues and not individuals;
- Avoid sexual references;
- If you are going to swear, do so with colleagues and not your boss; and
- “Don’t swear if you’re a woman.”
Forbes writer Sean Stonefield goes further in “Does Swearing At Work Get The Job Done?” (June 10, 2011) by explaining that curse words may be a way to blow off steam and add humor to a difficult situation. He expounds about the power balance by asserting that managers may be able to get away with profanity when underlings cannot. His warning about litigation risk bears repeating. If someone is offended and uncomfortable as the result of a particular slip of the tongue, a lawsuit could follow.
My view is that business communication deliverables (whether written or spoken) are most effective when clear, crisp and objective. Profanity that reflects negative emotions such as anger or frustration could worsen an already difficult situation. Moreover, the use of bad language could impede the delivery of information if someone tunes out or thinks less of the errant author.
Best-selling author Mark Henshaw recommends the avoidance of questionable language as one way to advance “a more polite society,” elaborating that its use (especially when excessive) adds little to nothing to enhance the flow of ideas. He reminds readers that profanity was once rare and makes real his message by pointing out that that the 1939 blockbuster movie “Gone With The Wind” (courtesy of writer Margaret Mitchell) gave us the words that were later voted by the American Film Institute as its number one “Greatest Movies Quote.” Do you remember Rhett Butler’s line to Scarlett O’Hara? “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a d__.”
I concur with Mark Henshaw that profanity is a faux substitute for competently conveying concepts to others and should be avoided.