As a self-proclaimed word-lover, there's nothing that gives me greater satisfaction than a good swear. Now, I'm not talking about swearing at someone or being abusive, I'm just talking about the joy that comes from swearing about something, whether it be good or bad. I came to swearing quite late in life – tentatively beginning when I moved to Scotland and then fully embraced during childbirth – and I'm now proud to say that swear words of all shapes and sizes are now fully paid up members of my vocabulary. Strangely, I'm still wary about swearing in a professional situation. But is it time to change? In this post, I consider the benefits of swearing and ask why, in a global pandemic, we're still ruled by 'polite society' in the office.
The science of swearing
There have been loads of scientific studies about swearing – the history of swearing, why we do it, how it links to intellect and its use as a response to pain, among others. In fact, typing in 'swearing' to Google Scholar brings back 146,000 responses! The few articles that I've read (not scientifically selected!) all point to the benefits of swearing. For example, in a study of lawyers, medical doctors and business executives in the UK, France and the USA, researchers found that both men and women of all ages admitted to swearing, and that there were positive outcomes for both individuals and groups, including stress relief, enhanced communication and socialisation. (Baruch, Y., Prouska, R., Ollier-Malaterre, A., & Bunk, J. (2017). Swearing at work: the mixed outcomes of profanity. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 32(2), 149-162) Other studies have pointed to the value of swearing in increasing pain tolerance, testing the use of the work 'fuck' against made-up swearwords. (Stephens R and Robertson O (2020) Swearing as a Response to Pain: Assessing Hypoalgesic Effects of Novel “Swear” Words. Front. Psychol. 11:723) And whilst we all know that swearing can help us make a point, a study has shown that swearing also increases the believability of statements. (Eric Rassin & Simone Van Der Heijden(2005)Appearing credible? Swearing helps!,Psychology, Crime & Law,11:2,177-182) Fucking awesome!
Embrace the profanity!
We have science on our side, so why is swearing so frowned upon, particularly when it's done a) in the workplace and b) by women? My answer? Bugger that! In today's workplace – you know, the one where racism, pay inequality and sexism (to name just some injustices) persist and we're all having to deal with enormous changes every day just to stay virus-free – swearing should be the least of our worries. So I think we should embrace the profanities! Here are my top tips for bringing swearing to work.
1. Your identity
For many people, swearing is a huge part of their identity. Swearing is a fundamental part of all languages. We might swear about different things (see Feck! A history of swearing from the very first F to the 21st C), but cultures from ancient times to today have all sworn about something. Here in Scotland, for example, there's a strong argument that the use of swearwords was stripped from the vocabulary as a means of control; the excellent BBC Scotland programme, 'Contains Strong Language' is well worth a watch. And, rather than being divisive, it can bring people together. The bloody brilliant PEG, or Profanity Embroidery Group, has inspired me to start my own sweary sewing group (we've moved beyond the sewing, although the swearing keeps going!). Not swearing at work means that some people are unable to be themselves. And, if we've learned anything from this pandemic, that must be that workplaces benefit from embracing the many different aspects of people's lives.
2. Your passion
As well as being an integral part of people's identities, swearing can also be a very powerful thing. You only need to look at the fucking wonderful Janey Godley's one-woman protest against Trump to see the power that a single word can have. A well-placed 'fuck', 'sod', or 'bollocks' can really help to express how you're feeling, whether you've had a good day or an absolute wank one. And we should all feel passionate about how we're spending our time. I realise that work is just that for a lot of people, but it's a failure of our society when people spend their working lives without feeling like they've had a fucking wonderful day or that they've been able to fuck some shit up. If it was up to me, that joy, that sheer passion that can't be summed up any other way should be encouraged and celebrated in the workplace.
3. Your message
Sometimes, the best way to get your message across is to involve swearing. And nowhere has this been better employed than by Janey Godley (her again!) and her incredibly funny - and informative - voiceovers of Nicola Sturgeon's daily coronavirus briefings. The brilliance of these voiceovers is in the way Janey combines the crucial parts of the briefing - whether that's about social distancing, face masks or any other part of the guidance - with insights into what Nicola might be thinking. The outcome? The guidance is suddenly made much more accessible. I'd love to see research on the number of people who followed the guidance based on Janey's clips! If you need to get a message out there, swearing might just be the perfect way.
4. Your stationery!
I love stationery. So, you can imagine my delight when I received a gift of a notebook and a set of pencils THAT BOTH HAVE SWEARY WORDS ON THEM! My teenage daughter was a little concerned that people might see my 'Twattington Arsecandle' pencil on a video call, and for some reason didn't want to take the 'Holy Shitbiscuits' one to school, but she didn't seem to mind the 'Is this Fucking Over Yet?' notebook inscription. The point is that, for me, having great stationery contributes to the enjoyment I have in my work. It makes me smile, helps me think, and encourages me to be creative. So, if that what works for people in your office, then embrace it!
All in all, I'm convinced that swearing is the way forward. So let's fucking get to it!