There was a study published by the University of East Anglia this week, which to judge from the media's reporting of it, would indicate we all swear like troopers at work, and that this is more than OK. It's a harmless way to let of steam, reduce stress, and reinforce team bonding in the workplace, it would seem. So, abandon all restraint right away, begin unzipping those fucks and cunts from bondage, let rip a guilt free rude riposte, liberate your coarse, expletive laden banter from its mental restraints immediately, it's entirely healthy badinage – its now been academically endorsed.
However, as a manager, I'm not allowed to swear, because for a manager to swear is tantamount to bullying in the workplace. For me, this instantly consigned this report to the bin of irrelevance. Who paying for this tosh to be researched and written? This sociological studying of the relative use of expletives in the workplace, gets academic funding from someone, I want their names and salary details. Which isn't to say I approve of swearing in the workplace, or that I use it as a means of exerting managerial control. It's never crossed my mind to do so – until now that is! All that stuff about power relations and position, changing the nature of our interactions, may or may not be true, but for me, by focusing on quite a minor point, it misses some thing more fundamental – what effect does the widespread cultural use of swearing have on society? Does it, for instance, make an important contribution to improving the quality of our communication? Does it cultivate an environment of tolerance and understanding, where we all live in a satisfied and contented harmony? The language of intolerance is sworn across peoples hearts and minds, and foams from their mouths.
Swearing seems more socially acceptable in the 'noughties'. You only have to randomly turn on your TV, at any time of day, to hear how common place swearing has become. It's not a particular attribute of swearing that it reinforces group cohesion, any shared language and culturally accepted forms of expression does that.
Apart from creating a group identity, what other effects does swearing have, not all of them are beneficial or desirable, surely? Is swearing best used in rare moments of extreme exasperation, or as a regular form of linguistic punctuation? How beneficial to society can swearing be? If someone in my team started swearing at anyone I'd need to put a stop to it immediately, not encourage it. Swearing is easily turned into a form of verbal bullying, it does this regardless of ones position in an office hierarchy. It impedes good team building, and cultivates a coarse, combative tone to interactions. Treating people civilly and with a respect for human dignity at work is vital – swear words do not do either of those things . Swearing is an inherently aggressive form of language, it uses degraded language to degrade our relationships with others.
I come from a working class/ chapel going family, where swearing was considered an extremely poor form of communication. As a teenager, when I first heard my Mother let out a swear word, I erupted into a hysterical, uncontrollable bought of laughter, it was that unusual. Swearing, used frequently, loses all its cutting emotive power. Like anything used regularly to shock or amuse, the more the joke is pulled the less funny or pointed it gets, thus the impact of expletives becomes blunted. Swearing these days has become tiresome and dull.
From the point of view of five Buddhist precepts regarding speech, swearing breaks most of them; they're not truthful, swear words exaggerate and are malign in intent; they're just not kind; they're harsh in tone and in no way an elegant or gracious use of language; they're a useless form of speech because, even if it gets some emotion off your chest, it's not in any way helped to resolve a situation of conflict, it might even have made it worse; they're just crude name calling; which brings us to the last precept against slanderous speech, whose opposite quality is speech that is likely to cultivate harmony.
Now this report might appear to imply swearing creates social bonding. There is a whole other discussion to be had about what that cohesive effect, if that was what it was, arose out of, was it out of a sense of harmony between everyone, or from a ganging together out of a shared sense of beleaguered adversity? The essential question is this - when we swear, are we at war or at peace with ourselves, or with others?