The pitfalls of cussing in the workplace

Profanity in the office is unprofessional. It's lowbrow and uncouth. Educated people shouldn't resort to foul language to communicate their unhappiness or frustration. There's a whole world of words out there that don't escalate arguments or take conversations in a volatile direction.

For the last six days straight, the web has been buzzing over the PR agency vice president who called a blogger an effing bee in an email (I've cleaned it up, but the guy used the real f word and b word). If you don't know the story, check it out on PR Daily, Gawker, or Business Insider. In short, his agency made a silly and untargeted pitch to the blogger, the blogger sent a snarky response, the agency rep said they'd steer advertising opportunities away from the site, and then the VP accidentally hit reply all and called the blogger an f***ing b***h (again, the asterisks are mine; he wrote the actual words). Needless to say, the blogger unleashed social media Armageddon on the company and the backlash against the agency has been mind blowing.

Industry publications have latched on to this story, calling out the veep and using the exchange as an example of how not to engage with bloggers. However, let's look at it another way. What if the guy hadn't cussed? Suppose he had said any one of the following things instead:

  • "My gosh! Her response was unpleasant and unnecessary!"
  • "Let's be sure to never pitch that woman again!"
  • "Wow. That was a little over the top."
  • "Onward and upward, troops. You can't win them all!"

Instead, he wrote, "What a f***ing b***h!"

These four little words have turned this guy's world upside down. He's deleted his Twitter account (probably to avoid hostile tweets) and been lambasted throughout the industry. If he had shown his displeasure with the woman and the situation without resorting to profanity, I honestly think this would have played out differently. There's just something about those two words in particular that can blow a disagreement into a full-fledged battle.

Am I being naive? Perhaps a little too wholesome?

Does cussing not matter in today's world?


  1. I have to confess that my days in advertising didn't help me in the salty language department. It was perfectly acceptable to have F bombs raining from the sky. I'm happy to report that as I have gone on in my career, I find myself in environments where it's rare to hear it. I'm not easily offended, but I have to say, being forced to stay "clean" makes you more articulate. Let's be honest, swearing is lazy. Which brings me to the subject of the PR debacle.

    The man in question is in the business of communication and that was the best he could come up with?! Also, he's a PR professional presumably trained in crisis comm and he couldn't see the storm, now category 5 tornado, that he created with TWO WORDS?! Maybe there were other circumstances in his day that made him react emotionally, but most of us have been trained to take a breath when something makes us that upset. Take a walk. Write it all out and delete it. Vent to your best friend. Anything, except use the keyboard and two horrible words as your weapons.

  2. The saying is "That no one swears like the English" I assume that is applicable across the pond as well. Generally, I agree with you inasmuch as I would never write those words, however similar have rolled of my tongue in warranted cases, but never to a woman. My advice to my sons, never use those words in front of your mother or girls.

  3. I read Jenny's post when she wrote about this. Not only did the guy step in, he proceeded to get a shovel and dig a little deeper.

    Cussing per se does not offend me. HOWEVER, there is certainly a time and place for it and I can't think of one single time it would have ever been appropriate in our office or one single time my response to a customer regardless of the situation, should have included a cuss word.

    Now those knuckleheads I hang with might drop a word or two on the golf course but I don't hang around anyone who is dropping F-bombs all the time.

    Unfortunately, the boundaries are always being pushed and cussing seems to be another barrier that has been knocked over and certain levels seem to be acceptable to many.

  4. I read the whole story (or rather, I know the story here). Whatever. My point... He was way out of line. "Reply All" and to her directly as well. He knew. And then, to apologize in such a way as to try and justify his position, c'mon. That's not a real apology. 

    He was in the wrong. Big time. Period. And sometimes, you pay for your mistakes. This is one of those times. 

  5. Oh, I agree with you. He was completely in the wrong. My point here is less about the reply all and more about the verbiage. Word choice can escalate things faster than a speeding bullet.

    As for the apology, no doubt about it, it was weak. A PR guy should know better. And if he doesn't? Well, we should be in another profession.

    Thanks for adding to the conversation, Ricardo!

  6. Thanks for chiming in, Bill. Very true. That barrier has been knocked over. Steamrolled as a matter of fact.

    As a guy in PR, I would have expected him to have a better appreciation about messaging. Whether the reply all was a mistake or not, what does he serve to gain as a leader by catering to the lowest common denominator? It could have been a teaching lesson for his staff, but instead he reacted without thought.

    Not the kind of PR guy I want on my team!

  7. I'm not living in a land of make believe. Honestly. I know we all cuss from time to time. But as a vice president who is a leader within the company? C'mon. Does such a response yield anything worthwhile? Nothing good comes from a knee jerk reaction.

    And that's some good advice to your boys, Argentum! :-)

  8. Great input, Theresa! And you took the words right out of my mouth. Clean language DOES make you more articulate and cussing IS lazy. So, so true!

    You're spot on. This guy should have known better. And that fact that he didn't should make every client on their roster list start to re-evaluate their business with BrandLink. A VP is supposed to have more experience and be better poised to deal with crisis. I bet he'll never think of the Kardashians or pantyhose the same way again ;-)

  9. Amber,
    Three years ago this month Gmail added a feature to their labs. It is called gmail goggles.  If you have not heard of it, you can read about it here.  While it is clever, with simple math problems to solve, it could be Gmail or any email software could be improved ever so slightly to call a warning message: 1) you have used profanity, do you want to continue? 2) You have selected to "reply all" are you sure you want to do so?

    How simple would it be to write that little piece of code? Everyone makes mistakes. But the circumstances here seem not to have called for such anger. The PR person really displayed a lack of good business sense and maturity.  Can I say leadershihp?

    See you soon.

  10. That's a wonderful idea, Judy! They give you that dialogue box when you delete something. "Are you sure???" Having that on reply all would be a blessing for senders AND receivers! Love it.

    As for the profanity warning, that's a good idea, too! Anything that helps people stop and think for a second, as they move through their hectic days, seems smart. I like it!

    As for leadership, you're spot on. I said something similar in a comment below. The VP could have set a great example for his staff. Instead, he ruined his reputation with a click of the send button.

  11. No - you're not being naive and there's nothing wrong with wholesome - especially if wholesomeness correlates with professionalism.  This whole brouhaha reminds me of kids in the schoolground showing how 'coo'l they are by swearing.  And thats what I always think when I hear adults swearing - hmm not too smart AND immature. Unless of course said adult has just hit their finger with a hammer..... or perhaps just dropped their laptop - then swear away!!  I guess that means it's ok to swear at an inanimate object but never at a person :)

  12. Interesting distinction. Swearing at things, but not people. I think I could get behind that ;-)

    In a business context, I just have to give cussing a big thumbs down. Especially when it comes to company leadership. They're supposed to set the standard, lead by example, and show us how to do things.

    I was never the "cool" kid on the playground who swore and smoked. I was still playing with my Barbies when the rest of the kids were hiding in the bathroom doing bad stuff ;-)

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the subject, Judy!

  13. And, sadly, none of the people who respond to their egregious misstep ever truly apologize. They make it worse by defending their awful behavior and saying stuff like, "Well, if you hadn't done this, I wouldn't have had to..." That always makes it worse. Always. 

    We need less cursing in the workplace. Cursing makes for a lot of tension and it's not constructive. It gives people a negative impression of us. And it's so very not necessary.

    Jose has a personal problem. I hope the women in that agency gave him H E double toothpicks.

  14. Jean, why the name change? I recognized your beautiful art in the avatar so I know, it's you ;-)

    Anyway, yes, you are so right. An apology should be just that. I'm sorry. Not, I'm sorry BUT.

    As you say, cursing can create tension and when it's used by someone on the leadership team, it sets a tone for the whole office. I used to work somewhere early on in my career where the boss punched holes in the walls when he was stressed. Talk about tension!

    Thanks for chiming in and sharing your thoughts, Jean!

  15. Hi Amber!
    It's one thing to think it. It's another to say it to your buddy in the same room. It's downright stupid to put it in an email and knowingly or unknowingly hit "reply all."  Wowza. Dumb move. I think our collective understanding of what's appropriate and what passes for civility has been thrown out the window and given to the wolves.  Our children haven't a clue and they hear words they shouldn't on the radio all the time, thinking it's ok. Whether it's a morning DJ talking about getting wasted or that little diddy that Maroon5 sings with Christina Aguilera, I've got to be mommy on the spot and censor the bad words when they pop up on the drive to school.  Then I've got to explain why or what it might mean.  I don't mind doing it; that's my job as a mom. What I do mind is doing it at 3 years old.  Hard work...:)

  16. Very true, Erica! The bar has gotten lower and as a society, we lose. Nothing good comes from it.

    I'm stunned at the language I hear from children these days. Imagine when the next generation is in the workplace. Might be novel NOT to hear a cuss word in every sentence. It's just downright sad.

    Good luck with the momming. You have your work cut out for you.

  17. HI AMBER!  Sorry have been away for so long....but such is the life right now....but I couldn't pass commenting on this posting given that I was laid off from a job by a boss whose constant vituperation (Anu Garg's word of the day from - one of my other favorite websites) made a job that I loved...a job that I also dreaded going to every day.  It only takes one person.

    I have always loved vocabulary.  No matter what class I was NOT doing well in...I always did well in my vocabulary classes.  Do they even have those anymore?  Probably going the way of cursive writing.  

    I remember that one of my English teachers once said, "there is no such thing as a synonym" and of course everyone looked at him like he was crazy, but as someone who loves vocabulary,it stuck with me and I totally understood what he meant.  Yes, there are many different ways of saying the same thing but depending on the words you use (which for purposes of this argument "mean the same thing") the words mean the same thing but some words give off a different "vibe".  Same thing holds true for this PR VP... like you said, he could have chosen his words a bit more wisely and said the "same thing".

    I haven't told you lately....but I LOVE YOUR BLOG!

  18. Hi Amber!  You are not being naive or too wholesome at all. You are being professional.  At the risk of sounding like someone's Mom, there is a time and place for everything including the need to cuss.  Sitting at a baseball game watching a bad play, it would seem appropriate that an irate fan may mix in a few cuss words to express their displeasure.  That same fan, while sitting in a meeting three days later with their CEO would never use salty language to express displeasure over what the CEO is saying...hopefully.  We all should  have social filters such that we recognize the appropriateness of not only our language but our content as well.  I am by no means a cuss-prude.  My husband is amused at my drive time vocabulary (because, of course, no one drives as well as I )  But, I check my cussing at the door and make sure that my social filter is in proper working order when in all professional and most social engagements.  
    Great post Amber!

  19. Rachel, I've missed you!!!!

    I hear you. A boss can make or break you. It's sad when a job you love turns into one you hate only because of one person.  ;-(

    And, yes, you're so right. Lots of different ways to say the same thing. Just a nuance that makes it come off differently.

    I loved vocabulary class, too! You're probably right, though. I bet lots of schools don't even have that anymore. Let's practice vocab in cursive writing one day, huh? ;-)

    Thanks for stopping by! I've missed seeing you online ;-(

  20. Great phrase, Claudia. Social filter. You're so right. A time and a place for everything.

    I'm not a cuss prude either (my Sopranos potty mouth post is a testament to that!). But, as you say, you have to run your commentary through a social filter. Or, at least I believe you should anyway!

    Frankly, I don't believe that kind of language from a company VP does him--or the business--any good. With leadership comes responsibility. Spouting off like that got him nowhere (internally or externally).

    As for calling it salty language, I love that phrase too (haven't heard that in awhile). And, actually, it's kind of making me crave pretzels now...  ;-)

    Thanks for chiming in, Claudia! Always a pleasure to hear from you!

  21. I read Jenny's blog regularly and the story cracked me up! The PR firm should have had more of a sense of humor about it. Calling her a f*** b*** and then following it up with a half-assed apology says a lot about their firm. Whatever backlash they receive is well-deserved.

    Re: Cursing. At the end of the day I feel like it's about authenticity. If you're a potty mouth at home, there is no way that isn't going to bleed over to your professional life. And there is really no place for it at work. I have a friend who writes poor emails and I've always encouraged her to take the time to speak and write well all the time not just when it's work-related. In time, it will be like second nature.

    But on that note, I feel like cursing has a very small place in our vernacular. Especially when accidentally stubbing my toe on the corner of the dresser...

  22. You're so right, Sam. Know your audience. If the firm actually knew Jenny as a blogger, not only would they have known the pitch wasn't right for her, they'd know she was a smarty pants and wouldn't have been surprised by her Wil Wheaton response!

    As for practicing writing, I couldn't agree more. Do it, be consistent in your communication, and it will become second nature.

    And, when it comes to stubbing our toes on dressers. Well, I think all of us get a pass on that one ;-)

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the subject, Samantha!


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