Thursday, April 21, 2011

It's OK to cuss it out if it hurts

My previous employer usually rented a suite once a year at Safeco Field for a company “outing” during the baseball season. I have to admit that baseball is one of those games that benefits from television broadcast editing; I always brought a book with me. Truth-to-tell, I was less interested in watching the game or socializing than I was in the free food, which was generally in generous quantities. During one of these functions, my reading and eating was interrupted by one of my colleagues, a woman from Guam, or somewhere, who was quite drunk and unusually chummy given that we didn’t particularly like each other. Working as a shipper, I sometimes commented about the way people like her boxed orders in the shape of the weirdly-shaped Experience Music Project building instead of taking the time to cut boxes in more-or-less right angles, in order to facilitate correct measurements and more efficient use of space to get the lowest shipping cost. And their aesthetic appeal certainly wouldn’t inspire costumers.

Anyways, this very drunk individual put her face very close to mine and told me a couple of “secrets,” despite the fact that she hated my guts: One day after work, she pointed me out to her husband, a retired military man who had just arrived to pick her up; I must be good worker, he told her. How could he tell that, she asked incredulously. Look how fast he’s walking. People who walk fast tend to work fast (at least when they have something to do). She told me another secret: The warehouse manager liked me because of, not in spite of, my occasional habit of swearing; it was a sign that I actually gave a damn about what I was doing. I have to admit that both of these revelations had added value coming from someone who was quite unabashed in confessing her dislike of me, especially if it was the only nice thing she could think to say me.

I bring this little story up because not many employers like swearing occurring in their workplaces; my current employer has a “no-swearing” policy. However, a couple of recent studies out of the UK have lauded the therapeutic effects of using blue language. At the esteemed Keele University (never heard of it), an experiment was conducted with subjects putting their hands in ice water and told to keep them in place for as long as they could. One group was allowed to use what language they chose to describe their feelings, and the other group was only allowed to repeat an inoffensive phrase. People who were allowed to express their thoughts in more aggressive terms were able to leave their hands in the water than the more passive observers of pain.

Another study done at the University of East Anglia (never heard of it, either) in 2007 claimed that swearing at work helps an employee “cope with stress.” That seems as if it should be no-brainer, except that some employers prefer to cut-off this outlet, because it implies something amiss in an imposed feel-good atmosphere. The study found that “taboo language” even boosted “team spirit.” When I was in the Army (when there were hardly any women around to offend), “taboo language” was frequently heard in cadence calls during road marches; it was an outlet for seemingly mindless exercises whose sole purpose seemed to be keeping people occupied. Today, the language has been cleaned up so not to offend the ladies.

A certain Professor Yehuda Baruch warned that “attempts to prevent workers from swearing could have a negative impact” by preventing healthy letting off of stress. Although the professor discouraged swearing in front of customers, he also reiterated that

"However, our study suggested that, in many cases, taboo language serves the needs of people for developing and maintaining solidarity, and as a mechanism to cope with stress. Banning it could backfire. Managers need to understand how their staff feel about swearing. The challenge is to master the art of knowing when to turn a blind eye to communication that does not meet with their own standards."

So there. Swearing is good when used in moderation and directed at immediate sensations of discomfort, appropriate inanimate objects, inefficiency or incompetence. It does not mean a person is unhappy about the overall picture, but just at the moment—or moments.

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