Swearing at Work Was Up 60 Percent in 2021, New Report Finds. That’s a *&^%-ing Good Thing

When you think of people you really don’t want to swear in front of, your team may be right up there with your grandma and your kid’s kindergarten teacher. Which is why a new report from Sentieo might initially come as a bit of a surprise to you (hat tip to Insider). 

The corporate and financial research platform recently combed through a database of around 9,000 conference call transcripts looking for expletives. They found 166 that contained them from 2021. 

That’s a small percentage of the total — CEOs haven’t suddenly starting talking like drunken pirates — but Sentieo notes it’s a significant jump from previous years. Just 104 transcripts contained profanity in 2020 and 112 in 2019, which means swearing at work was up a little more than 60 percent year on year in 2021.  

Why 2021 drove us all to swear more. 

Why this sharp rise? It could be that everyone was just so fed up with the pandemic they couldn’t hold themselves back, but given the steep jump in swearing from coronavirus-ravaged 2020 that hardly seems like a satisfying explanation all by itself. Still, the pandemic probably did play a major role in this marked rise in swearing. 

With so many suddenly working from home over the last two years, formality overall has taken a nosedive. It’s hard to keep your corporate face from slipping day after day when your dog or toddler habitually interrupts your Zoom calls and (at least the bottom half of) your wardrobe is slouching towards 100 percent sweatpants. Pandemic stressors have also revealed the authentic if often frantic human reality behind previously coolly professional colleagues. 

No wonder after beaming ourselves into our colleagues’ messy living rooms and begging off work to deal with virus-related crises for months on end, we’re all feeling more loose with our language. Is that a bad thing? Experts on swearing (yes, they exist) suggest not. 

The surprisingly positive science of swearing. 

As English professor Michael Adams explained in his book In Praise of Profanity, swearing together, at least in moderation, is a great way to bring groups together. “Bad words,” he writes, “are unexpectedly useful in fostering human relations because they carry risk….We like to get away with things and sometimes we do so with like-minded people.” 

While being oblivious to other peoples’ sensibilities won’t endear you to anyone, a measured dose of profanity brings two very useful elements into the workplace dynamic — vulnerability and authenticity. Uttering the occasional expletive requires revealing a bit of your true, unmanicured self and risking other people’s judgment for your lapse in propriety. These little exchanges of vulnerability and acceptance are what close human relationships are built on.  

In short, trusting each other to be ever-so-slightly naughty together brings teams closer together. And an absolute mountain of workplace research shows that trusting, close teams tend to do better work together. 

And don’t worry that swearing will make you sound stupid or untrustworthy either. Research has shown that those who use profanity actually tend to be smarter and more honest on average. “If someone is swearing a lot… they are not filtering their language so they are probably also not putting their stories about what is going on through similar filters which might turn them into untruths,” explained the University of Cambridge’s David Stillwell, a co-author of one such study. 

So let rip (within reason). 

The takeaway here isn’t that you should feel free to be foul-mouthed any time you please. If your profanity makes others uncomfortable, you’re just a jerk. But if the pandemic has caused the boundaries of you and your team’s workplace personas to erode enough to let the occasional four-letter word slip through, fret not. 

A few more curse words around the office isn’t just a sign that 2021 was a very hard year. It’s also a good indicator that your team is rallying together as human beings to face that adversity. And that is a *%^*-ing good thing. 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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