Swearing in the workplace can help relieve stress? Hell yeah!
Well, not so fast. Though a recent U.K. study highlighted how profanity at work can alleviate tension, skeptics contend that any benefits garnered from the slinging of dirty words is likely to be undone by all the potential pitfalls the saucy language can lead to.
A study released by the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, showed that swearing in the workplace can have positive effects such as decreased stress and a boosted sense of solidarity among co-workers. However, Dr. Joanna Mistopulos, a clinical psychologist in Toronto who specializes in workplace issues, remains skeptical about the practical benefits of cursing in the workplace, saying instead the use of profanity in the workplace can often cause just as much stress as it relieves.
“I think in terms of using swearing as a stress reliever it’s probably not a goal to have. It’s easy for curse words to actually cause stress,” Mitsopulos said.
The problem lies in the fact that words have different meanings for different people, even when used jokingly.
“It’s the listener who actually interprets the words that are used. Even if someone uses a curse word in a way that is intended to be not hurtful, the speaker has no control over how a listener can interpret it,” Mitsopulos said.
Of course, each workplace is different and the appropriateness of cursing will hinge on how people in a given situation respond.
“It really depends on how well people know each other. If everyone in the workplace is on the same wavelength then cursing would be harmless, but ultimately is that something you want to encourage in a professional environment?” Mitsopulos said.
Frequent use of profanity, like most things, breeds familiarity, which Mistopulos says can make it difficult to hold back at times when such language is clearly not appropriate.
“It’s habit forming — you are developing a habit when using such words. If you train yourself to speak a certain way, it can be hard to break the habit and accidents can happen, especially in front of customers,” she said.
Most importantly, Mitsopulos has dealt professionally with cases of workplace harassment where swearing was involved and says the biggest problem with the idea of “normalizing” swearing in the workplace is it can leave victims of real harassment helpless.
“Differentiating between what is light-heartedness and what is harassment is difficult, especially in the courtroom. If cursing is an acceptable form of expression in the workplace, what then is the basis for an employee to claim it as part of a harassment action?” she said.