I Swear

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Hi, I’m Chris and I have a problem. I’ve had it for a long time, probably fifty years. It’s a problem many people have. Some don’t recognize it; some don’t even consider it a problem.

The problem is that I swear. I use language that’s just not helpful. Sometimes in the wrong place or at the wrong time. And I’ve done it for so long – it’s such a habit ­– I can’t really be sure when I’ll make a mistake.

The issue is not that I curse at all. Strong language, properly exercised, has its place and can be of value. True expression requires varying degrees, and sharp edges are just as valuable as soothing melodious rhythms.

I’ve used strong language for as long as I can remember. And time and again, I’ve caught myself blurting something completely inappropriate. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it happens often enough to be concerning. I have to actively work on self-moderation in real time.

I’d love to blame my parents for my cursing. My mother was prone to it. She was a Julia Child disciple, and we often heard expletives echoing from the kitchen, the result of a hot pan or botched recipe. I also heard cursing in school, often on the playground or sports field. It was there that my vocabulary expanded the most.

But I never really learned to swear until entered the workforce. And that’s what this is all about.

This is Leading Smart, the show about Managing in the Brainpower Age. It’s a field guide to the joys and challenges of leading and working in the modern workplace. I’m Chris Williams, your guide to the stories and ideas that I hope will inspire you to be a better leader in the world of knowledge work.

This episode wraps up the series on communication as a leader. This time its a look at cursing in the workplace. This is Episode 231 ­– I Swear.

People curse for a stunning array of reasons: They do it to make an impact, to express urgency, pain, or anger. To belittle others, or to welcome them in. To be part of the in crowd, or to cast others out. To impress or shock those around them. Cursing has existed for as long as language and shows up in every known dialect. Words are, after all, designed to have an effect, some more impactful than others.

The pure variety of uses for the most common expletives is a strong indicator of how versatile they can be. They are used as interjections, nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, as part of compound words, as even as sound-alike substitutes for everyday words. 

People make up clearly nonsense words that sound like curse words simply so they don’t curse. There’s frick and shoot and crud and darn and on and on. It’s not clear to me why using these words is OK when they are obviously just a substitute, and often poor ones at that, for the real intended word. Either the situation calls for an expletive or it doesn’t.

Cursing seems to vary widely with national or regional cultures. The Irish, for example, seem to curse as easily as breathing. At the other end of the spectrum are the Japanese, where cursing is far more reserved. In the US cursing also varies widely. Comparing everyday speech in Boston to say Savannah one would see an enormous disparity in the use of expletives. Directness seems to be related. A Bostonian would tell you their opinion to your face, a Georgian is more inclined to offer “well bless your heart”.

Science has weighed in with numerous tests that show cursing has real life impact. People can tolerate more pain, both physical and mental, when allowed to express themselves with swear words.

The shock value of strong language also has situational effect. Swearing can be helpful to move a situation from a sticking point, or to at least underscore the extent of one’s feelings, good or bad. But shock is only useful if it’s rare. Once cursing becomes commonplace, it loses much of its value.

By their very nature, curse words cause offense. That is, after all, a core part of their goal. To raise the hackles of the receiver. Does this make cursing insensitive? Of course. Does that mean it has no place? Well, that too is highly situational.

Cursing without regard to the situation is insensitive to be sure. This is where I and many others struggle, swearing inappropriately. In that, cursing is on par with many other kinds of insensitivity. If you knew someone couldn’t bear loud noises, you wouldn’t yell. If you knew someone were allergic to peanuts you wouldn’t eat them in their presence. If you know someone is deeply offended by swearing, you shouldn’t curse. Unless of course offense was the objective…

Any listener to this podcast has likely heard this sound: <honk>. I use it to bleep out expletives that my guests use. 

It was a hard decision whether to bleep guests or even whether to swear myself. The stories leaders tell are best if they are authentic, and for many cursing is a core part of that authenticity. Peter Spiro, for example, uses choice words reflexively and as a part of casual conversation. It’s part of who he is. Others, like Somasegar, never do as part of a conscious choice. I respect and appreciate both of these leaders and their choice.

Yet some people are put off by cursing, enough to miss the larger and more important messages. I don’t want those people to miss out on the podcast. And Apple, Google, and other services require me to declare each episode as “clean” or not. They flag the episodes so that users can limit their selections.

In the end, I’ve made a simple marketing choice. Why limit the potential audience? So, I choose to bleep this podcast. I edit out non-essential expletives and use a carefully selected sound, designed to not interrupt the conversation, when I leave them in. And I choose not to curse myself. All with the goal of appealing to the largest possible audience.

This sort of playing effectively to the audience is arguably the most important part of workplace communication. Just as I carefully choose the words I speak here; all good leaders carefully reflect the image they want when they speak. And therefore, choose whether to curse or not as part of that selection.

In many workplaces, cursing is commonplace. It’s hard to find a construction site, a warehouse, or an automotive repair facility where expletives aren’t flying left and right. Any viewer of Goodfellas or the Sopranos knows that swearing is a normal part of that culture as well. It almost seems like a rite of passage to be able to curse effectively. As if something isn’t really an important problem unless it’s been described with a blue streak of curse words.

Many make the mistake of trying to correlate the frequency of swearing with education. Or with the kind of work, as if manual labor somehow evokes expletives. But in my experience, this oversimplification is flat wrong. 

I’ve worked a broad range of jobs, in a spectrum of industries. I’ve pushed a broom on a construction site and spoken to the board of a Fortune 500 company. The correlation between cursing and the organization has almost nothing to do with the kind of work, the education or skill levels of the workers, or even the industry in which they work. You can find examples of organizations where cursing is commonplace or where it simply is not done in an almost every industry, at every level of education. You can even find it to varying degrees within many larger organizations.

Cursing is a highly visible part of organizational culture, and one that sheds an interesting light on the people or atmosphere therein.

In my interview with Adam Bosworth a few weeks ago he made several very interesting comments about organizational cultures. If you haven’t listened to that episode, please do, it’s worth your time. Around 50 minutes in, I noted that Adam had worked for four of the largest tech companies, Microsoft, Google, Salesforce, and Amazon, and each of those companies had very different cultures.

One of the points Adam made was the culture of Microsoft in the 90s was what he called “brutish”, very frat boy, very aggressive. And I can confirm that cursing was everywhere. Lots of strong language, used in almost every setting. From the board room to the testing lab, cursing was alive and well at the company. Of course it varied, some organizations were softer and less aggressive, and there cursing was less commonplace. But even in HR, something flew every now and then.

Adam notes, on the other hand, that in his years at Google, he never once heard a curse word. In any meeting ever. He similarly notes that cursing is rare at Amazon. Used only on exception. My connections there confirm it, saying they hear someone curse perhaps a couple of times a year.

Further I believe this element of culture is reflective of the leadership. Bill Gates, for example, swore frequently. One of his favorite retorts was “that’s the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard.” As he aged, he became less prone to expletive outbursts. But it’s not clear if that was due to cultural pressure at work or the result of becoming a parent.

The aggressive nature of Microsoft’s internal culture was also reflected in the marketplace. Microsoft was a ruthless competitor in the early years and got the reputation as a bully. It’s not clear whether the internal organizational culture caused the outward behavior, or whether the outward market pressure amplified the need for an aggressive internal culture. Adam has some thoughts on that as well. Again, it’s worth a listen.

It’s also worth noting that Amazon is a very strong and aggressive competitor in their many marketplaces, yet they have a culture which doesn’t do much cursing. From what I see, the internal culture is quite hard core, with people held to very high standards, very strict performance evaluations, and more than a little internecine conflict, and yet without a great deal of cursing. 

It’s also hard to argue that Google, a workplace as Adam notes where cursing is just not done, is not an aggressive competitor. Simply ask the Microsoft Bing or Yahoo search teams whether they consider Google to be a player of hardball. Cursing it seems can be an indicator of aggressive culture, but it is certainly not a predicate for it.

Some organizations use cursing, or the lack thereof, as a way to say “but we are different”. Examples might be a trucking company lead by deeply religious people where cursing is shunned. Or an academic culture where it is not. Both afford the organization the ability to stand out, to benefit marketing, recruiting, or to simply amplify their internal culture.

Today, Microsoft is a different company. Lead by a much more soft-spoken leader in Satya Nadella, the company has a different cultural vibe. For many old-timers that’s a good thing. Cursing it seems, too is far less commonplace, although certainly not gone. Younger generations it seems might be better at being sensitive to the recipient than old people like myself have been for decades.

What is clear is that swearing is a cultural phenomenon. Whether that’s industry, corporate, or even local organizational culture, the propensity to let expletives fly is directly related to the sensibilities of that culture. 

In short, if the leader does it, the organization follows. 

In this way cursing is a wonderful indicator of the power of leadership. Many leaders I work with are deeply skeptical when I tell them the power they have to influence, even establish their organization’s culture. They doubt the impact one person can have on the behavior of dozens or even thousands of others. But look no further than the organization’s propensity for cursing and you see the impact of the leader on the culture. It’s almost 100% true that if the leader curses, the organization does. And if the leader discourages the use of expletives, they will be rare in the culture.

This brings us to the next series in this podcast. In the next episode we’ll begin a series on organizational culture. What it is, how to read it, and most importantly how you as a leader can influence it. So many times I’ve heard leaders bemoan a culture with many bad habits. They simply don’t understand the power and influence they have as a leader.

But that’s next time. Until then, remember to do as I say and not as I do. Listen well, and remember to feel your audience. Perhaps you’ll do better than me at stopping yourself before I swear.

Leading Smart is from me, Chris Williams. You can find out more about the show and discover other resources for leaders at my web site CLWill.com.

I’m sure you know someone else who’d like the show, please share it with them. Or spread the word on social media. I’d also love your feedback. I’m “theCLWill” on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook, or send email to pod@clwill.com.

That’s it for this episode. The next episode is another of my conversations with leaders. We’ll talk with Liz Pearce, the CEO of Seattle startup FreshChalk. We talk about her remarkable rise from marketing contractor to CEO, and what it’s like in the crucible of startup life. I hope you’ll listen. Until then, please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.