There’s a reason we call it the “f-bomb.”
Like a bomb, the particular profanity beginning with “f” can be a powerful weapon.
Yet in offices, hallways, conference rooms and cubicles, people are dropping the f-word into daily banter with no more ill will than lobbing a pencil. Mostly, this is driven by young people who’ve grown up hearing it in movies, music and cable TV and reading it on social media. They don’t consider it a BFD to say it, and are surprised when others do.
“We are in a time of flux,” said Benjamin Bergen, author of “What The F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves.” Language is always evolving, which often causes tension, but Bergen said we may be in the midst of the biggest generation gap ever.
“A few centuries ago, a student’s ‘zounds’ or ‘gadzooks’ would turn an English teacher’s face purple,” he said. In 1972, heads spun when comedian George Carlin famously named “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” — which technically still is true, at least for broadcast TV.
But TVs today are mere appliances to digital natives, outpaced by a new world of screens on computers, phones and pads funneling content for which we, as subscribing viewers, are our own censors.
Bergen describes a 20-year-old waking up to check her Twitter feed “and can see [the f-bomb] a hundred times before breakfast.” So when she arrives at work and wonders aloud with profane curiosity who emptied the coffeepot without starting another, she believes she’s simply expressing her dismay.
Some co-workers may not miss a beat, may even laugh. But such language can become a problem if someone — likely older, but not always — overhears and takes offense.
(A distinction: We’re not talking about using the word to berate or intimidate others, but as an energetic adjective to elevate a strong emotion, even express enthusiasm.)
Karen Gureghian is a human resources consultant with HR Business Partners in Minneapolis. Her work often takes her into offices where she has to sit in common spaces and so hears the ebb and flow of conversation.
Sometimes, she said, two people use similar language and neither one is offended, “and that’s OK. But if you’re in a hallway and people overhear you and they’re offended, that could contribute to a hostile work environment.”
Dropping an f-bomb “isn’t illegal, so to speak,” she added. “But sometimes it’s pretty bad. I’m not offended, but after a while, it can get kind of off-putting and makes me wonder about that person and their judgment.
“Are they getting their point across, or have they misread the room?”
What’s really offensive? Slurs
Workplaces are creatures of tradition, management and stereotype.
Language is influenced by age, class, environment and culture.
Little wonder, then, that expectations can clash — sometimes unexpectedly.
One millennial who responded to a Facebook query about workplace profanity said he and his friends feel like they’re navigating a world where they’re the pottymouths, so strive to dial it back. Yet as a white-collar engineer who inspects power plants, he encounters rampant profanity among some older, blue-collar employees.
“I am pretty much expected to reciprocate if I want them to respect me and listen to my recommendations,” he said, preferring to remain nameless because he was describing clients. “It can be a struggle with being taken seriously versus being professional, but you learn the proper balance over time.”
While their profanity may surprise him, it doesn’t offend him. What does, he said, is a casual use of “homophobic/racist/misogynist language.”
Bergen said that jibes with several recent studies in which people were asked to rate vulgar words from most offensive to least offensive.
In one, where college students rated 92 words considered taboo, a word that also means manure came in 49th. The f-bomb rated no higher than 13.
Among the dirtier dozen were words with sexual or religious roots.
“But the words they considered most offensive were slurs,” Bergen said — terms that denigrate people based upon skin color, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental abilities.
In a way, Bergen said, this is good news: While young people may find the f-word no big deal, they are offended by slurs that target and are specifically meant to hurt people.
A study last year of 1,500 office workers by Wrike, a management software company, found that almost seven in 10 millennials said they swear at work, compared with a little more than five out of 10 baby boomers.
About a third of millennials explained that swearing can help strengthen a team, and that can reflect enthusiasm for their work. In their view, an f-bomb is just an adjective, used without overthinking it too much.
Yet at times, Bergen said, a little overthinking wouldn’t hurt.
“If you’ve judged your audience right and they, too, think this is an informal context, then they will judge you to be funnier, more honest, more accessible, more casual,” he said. “But if you’ve miscalibrated, and they don’t like you, then profanity will make you seem unhinged, out of control, irrational, undisciplined.”
Overuse dilutes potency
By many measures, our culture is more profane than it was a generation ago.
Martin Scorsese’s 2014 film, “The Wolf of Wall Street” included a record 506 f-bombs. The previous record holder was Spike Lee’s 1999 serial-killer drama “Summer of Sam,” which contained 435 instances of the word.
Twitter and Facebook, considered semi-private forums, don’t screen for potentially offensive content (although they both ban hate speech and threats). Twitter counsels “block and ignore,” while Facebook notes: “Please keep in mind that something you don’t like on Facebook may not go against our Community Standards.” Three words: Winnie the Pooh.
Minnesota Vikings fans avidly post with profanity on the team’s official Facebook page, according to a cybersecurity company that studied pages of the 12 playoff teams in January 2016. Vikes fans were second only to Houston in using naughty words.
Even three in four millennial moms admit to swearing in front of their kids, according to a survey of 1,000 millennial parents by Kraft, makers of the modern mother’s little helper, boxed mac and cheese.
Kraft made a Mother’s Day video on YouTube about alternative swearwords that parents can use around their little ones. Host Melissa Mohr, an English professor who wrote “Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing,” suggested saying, “What the frog?” or, “Get your shiittake mushrooms ready for soccer practice.”
The sheer preponderance of profanity in some ways works to dilute its potency.
“There’s this treadmill that profanity is on,” Bergen said. “A word may be innocuous, then gets conscripted to perform a new profane duty, then falls off the end.”
Laurie Bennett, responding to the Facebook query, said this: “I think social media has actually cleaned up my language in real life. I find so many posts offensive, it drives me in the other direction.”
Norms come from the top
So what the heck is a workplace to do?
“The standards need to come from the top,” said Gureghian, the human resources consultant. Yet these days, who’s at the top may be changing.
According to the Wrike study, 80 percent of millennials said they were more likely to swear if their boss does; only 60 percent of baby boomers said the same.
“As baby boomers are starting to retire, they’re not there to enforce things,” Gureghian said. “They used to be the ones to say, ‘This is the way we operate.’ Now some of my clients say the kids have taken over. So maybe this is the new norm.”
Bergen said that workplace language has always been managed, and trusts that younger employees will figure it out. New hires learn that there are both effective and ineffective ways to blend in.
“You learn what the norms are, who makes the rules,” he said. “The ones who are more effective are the ones who say the least at the beginning.”
In the scheme of things, Gureghian said, language standards simply are the latest in a long line of shifts in workplace norms.
Piercings, once forbidden, now are common. Tattoos, once limited to non-visible body parts, are more tolerated. Years ago, dress codes shifted to enable women to wear slacks and men to ditch their ties.
Yet there remain perennial hot buttons. Like flip-flops.
“Every summer, it’s the same,” she said, laughing. “Some company says, ‘We don’t want those flip-flops. We don’t care what they’re wearing — we just don’t want that sound around here.’ ”
It’s always something.