A couple of years back, I was interviewing for a job when the word bullshit slid off my tongue. I instantly recognized it as an etiquette breach on par with handing over a coffee-stained résumé, but to my relief, the interviewer didn't register horror so much as bemusement as he went on to the next question. My industry (newspapers) happens to be one where salty language is a native dialect, so I dismissed the incident as a small example of journalism's gritty charms. Of course, mine isn't the only profession that abides by a liberal use of foul language — trading floors, restaurant kitchens, and Hollywood talent agencies (thank you, Ari Gold) come to mind. For what it's worth, I've even met a potty-mouthed priest.
Yet cursing seems to have gone viral recently. First came Melissa Leo's Oscar F bomb, followed by Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight's characterization — live on ESPN — of an opposing team's "chickenshit defense." And then there's Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose fondness for the George Carlin Seven is so well-known, that while he was President Obama's chief of staff, he kept a sign on his desk in the White House that read "Undersecretary for Go Fuck Yourself."
Which begs the question: If so many of us are letting it rip at work, is it really all that bad? "It's an ice-breaker," says Suzan Clarke, 24, a marketing and event planner in New York City, who says she subtly and strategically sprinkles swear words in her client pitches. "I'll be in a meeting, talking about a nightclub, and I'll say, 'Their doormen are all assholes,' and invariably, someone will say, 'Oh, I'm so glad you said that.'" There's scientific evidence to support Clarke's claim: A 2007 British study found that cussing on the job actually encourages camaraderie and boosts workplace morale.
While no formal data exists to quantify how much more we curse at work nowadays, listen up — it's hard to miss. That may be because so few of us are ever taken to task for it. Of the 2,000 execs surveyed by job site theladders.com, 81 percent said foul language at work was "unacceptable," yet only a third said they'd actually doled out a verbal warning for it; only 6 percent said they fired someone for the offense. "My rule is that it should be organic to the need," says Stephen Viscusi, author of Bulletproof Your Job. "Let's say you're talking to your boss about a raise, and you say, 'I've worked here for 10 years, I've taken on three people's jobs and had two pay cuts during the recession. When am I going to get a fucking raise?' You're going out on a limb to make your point, which gives it more emphasis."
The problem, says Viscusi, is that too many of us don't know how to use swearing to our advantage, rather than as evidence of frustration and lack of control, which never looks flattering. That's what happened to Pat Moore, 34, a former call-center supervisor from Maryland, who used the F bomb to silence a rowdy room while she was on a call with an irate client. "I put the caller on hold and told everyone to 'sit down and shut the fuck up!'" She instantly felt the tone of the room change and knew she'd made a mistake. "That incident was on my mental list of reasons that I wasn't 'supervisor material.' I hated that I was at the point where I would do that."
For women especially, discerning when it's OK to curse can be a slippery target. Fact of the matter is, men view other foul-mouthed men as big swinging ... well, you know. Women, even those in powerful positions, are expected to be more restrained, even daintier. In her recent position on a busy trading floor, Mary Diaz listened to her male colleagues exchange profanities all day. "The ratio was 20 to 1 [men to women], and it was a free-for-all at times. They acted like they were in a frat house — no-holds-barred," she says. But when Mary joined the expletive pile-on, she was chided for it. "They're like, 'Ooh, Mary, chill out.' A guy who curses is cool, laid-back, and funny, but a woman who curses is aggressive or catty."
The safest barometer for determining whether it's OK to let loose at work: Does the boss do it? And even then, tread carefully. One F word too many can help cement your reputation as rough around the edges. That may not be a career killer, but it's certainly no competitive advantage. "You know how every office has a Candy Lady?" asks Viscusi. "Well, let's just say nobody wants to be The Person Who Swears at Work."