Does Bad Language Lead to Better Teams?

By Jocelyn Brady
Executive Creative Director, Scribe

August 28, 2018

Editor's Note: I mostly work remotely because I know if I was in an office all day every day, my co-workers would be exposed to some, uh, let’s just say “Raw Jeffy.” (Yuck.)

This article suggests that maybe such exposure would be a good thing, but I’m not publishing it to be self-serving. I’m not. I swear.

Do you remember the first time a teacher of yours said a bad word in class? Or your parent let an expletive fly and shot you that do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do look? It’s like you were suddenly in on a secret. This person — this adult who had always been something older and other — was someone who actually broke the rules every once in a while… Just. Like. You. Which meant, in that jaw-dropping flash of a few seconds, maybe you and that Grownup Boss Person were on the same team after all. Woah.  

That was years ago now, and what you probably weren’t aware of at the time is that swearing can not only increase people’s tolerance to pain and release stress, but — get this — it can even improve group/team/class/staff morale. Was your teacher onto something? Did mom or dad forget to mention that “bad” language can sometimes lead to some good? 

“Bad” words are those that our culture took upon itself sometime in the Grammatic Age (Editor’s note: Not a real age) to categorize as off-limits — things you just don’t say. 

Over time, however, language, like everything else, grows and changes. (We’d love to see how George Carlin’s list would sound when revised for today’s tastes.) Which means that bad language of the past can get reabsorbed and reused in different contexts by the current mainstream (just think of what you’re allowed to say on television compared to 1980, 1950 and on the radio before that). 

Simply put, a word out there in the wild can evolve from a “bad word” into a word that’s bad, but kind of less bad — depending on how and when you use it.  

A tendency to swear can also strengthen workplace cultures and move along social occasions that can otherwise get stuck in a circle of being-so-polite-we-accomplish-nothingness.  

It’s important to note that some words are historically always off-limits, and for good reason. (Unfortunately, the news is rife with such examples.) For the purposes of this 5-minute read, we’re more concerned with swearing as the use of, ahem, “expressive expletives,” and not racist or phobic slurs.  

Our culture has a tendency to adopt and deploy a collection of “bad” words to an array of ends. It’s as if bad language is a code within a code, a handful of specially earmarked words that when used in the right context (time, place, intent, audience), can reveal someone’s “verbal fluency.” In fact, science suggests that a tendency to swear can also strengthen workplace cultures and move along social occasions that can otherwise get stuck in a circle of being-so-polite-we-accomplish-nothingness.  

That may be in part because “curse” words, when used in the right way, can elicit more trust — and bonding — in the workplace. Emma Byrne, author of Swearing is Good for You, notes: “One of the reasons why there’s probably this strong correlation is that swearing has such an emotional impact. You’re demonstrating that you have a sophisticated theory of mind about the person that you’re talking to, and that you have worked out where the limit is between being shocking enough to make them giggle or notice you’ve used it but not so shocking that they’ll be mortally offended. That’s a hard target to hit right in the bullseye.” 

What’s more, actively suppressing the occasional swear word may even be doing us all a disservice. According to neurobiologist Semir Zeki, “Any creative person … who censors what they want to say or depict because of social disapproval or prohibition, or because of self-imposed, even unconscious, censorship, will find it difficult to produce a work of the highest quality.” And whether you consider yourself creative or not, today’s workplace demands creative thinking. No matter your job description, you’re in the business of coming up with new ways to solve problems or collaborate more effectively.  

Whether you consider yourself creative or not, today’s workplace demands creative thinking. 

So if this type of language has the power to boost morale and improve our performance — does it have a place at work? When’s the last time your leadership rallied teams with dangerously spicy rhetoric? Have you ever sworn in a meeting? (Silently cursing a death-by-PowerPoint doesn’t count.)  Chances are, we’re all a little afraid to let our language slip in the office. Or we’re embedded in a workplace culture that dissuades swearing outright. 

We’re not suggesting you run around the office spouting curse words like a drunken sailor. Before you launch into an intentionally expletive-filled team meeting, don’t lose sight of the potential impact of breaking down too many workplace norms and creating an uncomfortable or even hostile work environment. Remember, context matters — the science simply suggests that ignoring bad language might mean missing out. 

How do we strike the balance between unifying and harmful language? 

We’re just wondering whether we all take ourselves too seriously sometimes — and that in trying to do things too perfectly, we might be overlook a grander, deeper world in which we understand each other a little bit better. There’s something really beautiful about the truth of that. There’s a level of authenticity that, once revealed, allows us to bond and work together better.  

How do we strike the balance between unifying and harmful language? That’s a great question, and we look forward to you helping us discover the right f****** answer.

By Jocelyn Brady
Executive Creative Director, Scribe
By Evan P. Schneider
Founding Editor, Author

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