Can Cursing Help?

More professionals are saying they swear at the office. When it can set you back-and when it may be okay.

Published: Mar 7, 2019

Discover insights, career tools and much more in Korn Ferry Advance

Throughout his more than four-decade career, psychologist and retired professor Timothy Jay worked in nearly every environment you can imagine: construction sites, factory floors, and the hallowed halls of a college. In some of those workplaces cursing wasn't only accepted, it was expected. And most surprising? The growing amount of foulmouthed decorum occurring within the glass walls of an office. "Swearing can be helpful," Jay says, "if other people are doing it and you want to fit in."

As younger workers fill the cubicles, cursing has become a common form of expressing everything from attaboys on a project to frustration with a client. Millennials in particular have embraced foulmouthed verbiage, with 66% saying they swear at work, according to a survey by project management software company Wrike. That's 12 percentage points higher than the rate of swearing among baby boomers and Gen Xers. Other studies show that using profanity at work makes you more likable, help you share a connection with colleagues, and relieve stress. "Stepping out of formal, official ways of speaking and acting can signal we're able to relate personally," says Mark Royal, a senior director at Korn Ferry whose work focuses on employee engagement. "Seeing a candid reaction of frustration can be very open and real."

When used correctly, cursing can reduce stress.

Of course, if you're going to swear, you have to do it right, or it can make you look unprofessional, insulting, or well, like a jack … never mind. "You have to know your audience and to what extent letting your hair down will be well received," Royal says. "If someone finds it offensive, the potential benefits of being informal with your language can backfire."

Indeed, if you drop f-bombs in an environment where it isn't accepted, you run the risk of actually creating more stress. Some companies are even trying to implement no-cursing policies, though experts say those are nearly impossible to enforce. Of course, it's better to swear about something than using an expletive directed at someone. Below, tips on when it's OK to say to hell with it.

Bring on the profanities.

It may sound obvious, but one of the best tricks to navigate swearing in the workplace is to never be the first one to curse, particularly when you begin a new job, says Jay, who has written several books on profanities, including Cursing in America and Why We Curse. Instead, feel out your coworkers and determine whether they express humor, frustration, or thoughts with curse words, and then follow suit.

Research also supports taking a casual approach to swearing when dealing with common frustrations at the office. Researchers at Keele University in the UK found that using curse words, particularly if you aren't constantly uttering them, can actually provide pain relief. If you are trying to meet a difficult deadline and working on very little sleep, then cursing could help you build resiliency so you can produce better work.

If you're a manager, swearing can also serve as a motivation tool when used correctly. If you don't use swear words often, then you can pull out the harsher words (we'll let you decide which ones) when you feel like your team needs to get out of a rut. It can "jolt interest," says Shannon Cassidy, founder of a Bridge Between, an executive coaching firm.

Hold your tongue.

Of course, there's a difference between muttering under your breath that a "meeting was a [insert your favorite epitaph here] waste of time" versus calling someone an a-hole. You don't want complaints to HR about names you called others or a crude joke you made, since that's encroaching on harassment. "You need to draw a distinction between swearing with people and swearing at people," Royal says. Every office will also likely have some members, who for religious or decorum reasons, dislike cursing. It's best to avoid letting the language fly during conversations if you know it makes someone uncomfortable-or if you're in a setting where others are in earshot, and could become unintended audiences. It's worth noting that if you're cursing on an instant messaging forum, like Slack, those conversations are permanent and could be used against you when you're looking for a raise or a promotion.

Cassidy suggests keeping your cursing among your peers and taking a more reserved approach when dealing with your boss or the CEO. She has worked with clients during presentations where the person blows away the senior leaders with ideas, only to start letting curse words fly once they're comfortable. It can often crush credibility. "Even if the execs are swearing, it still may not be accepted for junior staff, since you still have to earn your stripes," says Cassidy. But if the CEO invites you to dinner and starts letting loose, it's not only a sign that you can join in, but that you also have earned those [expletive] stripes.

The ultimate career guide, from Korn Ferry CEO and New York Times best-selling author, Gary Burnison
Complimentary with every Premium subscription
It Starts With You...
How to take control, uncover your blind spots and make more money.
...But It’s Not About You
Surviving bosses and coworkers, managing, and networking success.
To Earn More, Learn More
Don't be a know-it-all, be a learn-it-all with practical advice and tools.
"Advance gives you a wealth of practical and actionable advice. You'll have what you need to take control of your career, starting today."