When is it fair to cry foul on coarse words?


Fair is foul and foul is fair; hover through the fog and filthy air.” With an apology to Shakespeare, what language is fair and what fouls the air in the workplace?

My clean language has made a few co-workers uncomfortable. But I have also felt the need to censor myself when working in very conservative organizations. What is fair to one person is foul to another; therein lies the problem.

Every workplace is a mix of people inculcated with different standards and from different cultures. And every business has its own culture based on the personality, preferences, and behaviors of the person at the top.

If the boss routinely curses will that same boss accept an employee using foul language with customers? I doubt it. The boss wants customers to feel welcome and respected. There may be a long-standing and comfortable relationship with a cussing customer, but even cussing customers want to be treated respectfully.

Should context, intent, frequency and choice of cuss words be considered before issuing a blanket condemnation of all foul language? Probably so. But who draws the lines? Can a standard or policy be written that outlines specific circumstances when an employee can curse and exactly what is or isn’t allowed?

Some businesses have policies that thoughtfully categorize foul language into “slurs,” defined as demeaning people, and “slang” which uses body parts or bodily functions as adjectives. As much as I appreciate a reasoned approach, something about that strikes me as cold and sterile. Would I be allowed to refer to someone as a jackass?

Words can make someone feel safe or endangered, respected or demeaned. A boss who reacts to a problem with coarse or vulgar words is not enjoyable to work for, but neither is a boss who blisters an employee with clean language.

Customers can be rude and some make it difficult to treat them with courtesy; but is it fair to maintain a courteous demeanor with the customer and vent in the back room with co-workers? Should co-workers have to tolerate hostile or vulgar words from an angry co-worker?

No they shouldn’t. The workplace is a shared space and should be comfortable for all employees. Vulgar language can be used in good humor, but it is more often used to demean or express anger. I have observed that people who routinely use coarse words are quick to take offense to a phrase or word they see as an insult or challenge.

Business owners can have policies that require professional behavior and language in the workplace. Those policies work best if the owner and managers model the behavior they want from their employees.

I admit I am conflicted when it comes to foul language. Some of my favorite co-workers could take the paint off the walls with their language. But they were honest people who did good work and treated others with care and consideration. Their foul language wasn’t part of their routine conversation; it appeared on special occasions, sometimes appropriately so.

And I have known a few colleagues with pure vocabularies who saw no problem in padding their invoices or gossiping maliciously. Their language was far more pure than their actions.

Today we are seeing coarse language become an accepted norm in the media; it has become more difficult to shock with language than it was just a few years ago. The other trend we see is a generation that substitutes texting for conversation. I’ll take a good conversation with a little salt in it over a Facebook status update or a text message any day.

What do I recommend if there is a language problem at work? If a policy is put in place it needs to be carefully written and everyone from the boss to the newest hire should be held to the standard. But I really think the issue is more about having a workplace where people are treated with respect and courtesy, and that is difficult to prescribe by policy but it is easy to see in action.

Years ago a meeting I was in turned quite blue. I asked a question: “What do you people have against mothers?”

I began repeating their words back to them and asked them to explain the logic of their adjectives. And then my co-workers told me they were really tired of my “good golly” and my vehement “mercy, mercy, mercy” when I was really mad.

We negotiated awhile. I added hell and damn to my vocabulary and they agreed to show mothers a little more respect.

Fair and foul were defined.

Virginia Detweiler provides human resources services and management training to businesses in southeastern Washington. Questions for her columns are welcome and can be submitted to her email address at wwcomplady@gmail.com. Those used will be edited to remove information that would identify the sender. She can also be reached at 509-529-1910.


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