Profanity and Professionalism

“If profanity had an influence on the flight of the ball, the game of golf would be played far better than it is.” ~ Horrace G. Hutchinson

“All hockey players are bilingual. They know English and profanity.” ~ Gordie Howe

Profanity in business settings

Just to be clear, this is not meant to be a judgment of other writers or speakers as much as it is a discussion starter for business professionals.

Much has changed since I first wrote on this subject almost a decade ago. Even pre-pandemic, swearing had become much more commonplace among younger generations. A article called millennials “the largest – and most vulgar – generation,” and stated that as of 2016 “66% of millennials swear in the workplace – 28% of them do it every freaking day.”

Then, in March of 2020, the pandemic helped create “a perfect swearing storm,” according to linguist Michael Adams in the Wall Street Journal. Not only did it make life more stressful for most of us, but the artificial walls between the office and home, personal and professional relations, and “being on/off the clock” fell to the wayside.

I get it – in addition to being both a golfer and former hockey player ;-), I am also an ex-high school and collegiate basketball coach of more than 20 years. My assistant coaches can attest to the fact that I could cut loose with the most hardened sailors – in the coach’s office, on the phone, when scouting a game, or going out after a win (or loss) – but never in front of my players.

For me, and I realize that this is going to be different for each of us, if you are going to use profanity at all, context is the key. What environment are you in, what is your subject, who is your audience, how well do you know them, and how well do they know you? If you’re uncertain about any of these elements, I would opt for discretion and leave the profanity out of your presentation or writing.

Even as someone that uses profanity, I’m still sometimes put off when listening to a speaker or reading a business article in which profanity is used – as hypocritical as this may sound – it is true, and I suspect that I am not the only one that has this reaction (am I?).

Obviously for me, it is not so much the actual inclusion of the language that I find offensive, but rather, I think, the assumptions that have been made, and the disrespect that it shows to the “unknown” listener or reader.

In my opinion, the inclusion of profanity in a professional presentation (written or verbal) is simply . . .  unprofessional.

Yes, there are those that get away with it- I am still a big fan of Gary V. – and you can argue that you have a right to “free speech”, and you do – write whatever you want on your blog. You may not care whether I (or others) read your blog or follow you – another completely valid argument or response. But if you are writing for prospective clients or other business professionals, then you should at least be aware of the possible impact that your language is having on them, and in turn, may be having on your business.

Am I wrong? 

Editor’s Note: This article was first published in 2013, and has been updated to reflect changes in the modern workplace.

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