Swearing is good for you – a workplace guide

The launch of the linguistic science book Swearing Is Good For You got us thinking; does foul language have a place in PR? Are there exceptions for expletives? And what good could they do?

Nowhere more so than in the communications industry could swearing be seen as lazy. When we have so many words to choose from, why would we settle for something so crass and careless? Perhaps it’s because when we swear we’re saying everything we mean in just four letters – or a few more, depending on your rude word of choice.

The theory is that swearing uses a different part of the brain than our everyday language and so elicits a special response. ‘Bad words’ are bound with emotion so when voiced in aggression they offend, when used to emphasise a point they can be persuasive, when muttered or shouted for catharsis they relieve pain, and when shared between colleagues they build bonds.

In an industry maligned for creating corporate guff (and simultaneously committed to stamping it out), swear words may be the one time we can definitively claim to be speaking in the plainest and most straight forward language. Swearing is a powerful way of getting someone to understand our emotions instantly – if you can’t identify what those are, then how you feel about the expletives is the least of your problems.

When it comes as a criticism, a swear word may not be nice to hear, but writing it off as a colleague or client who can’t control their emotions or articulate their feelings is missing the point entirely. They’ve had the most honest and blunt reaction possible – unpack it; figure out what’s behind the word, so next time their response isn’t “that’s s***!” but “that’s s*** hot!”

The caveat of course is that a verbal tirade of obscenities is never ok, but a slip of the tongue – or an intentional curse word – should be understood for the meaning it carries, not presumed to be void of meaning.

For many of us, profanity has a regular place in our vernacular. Swear words are so versatile; they can be used descriptively, idiomatically, abusively, emphatically and cathartically (it would be pushing the editorial guidelines to give more examples here). While we wouldn’t use this colourful language within earshot of our grandmother, she’s not in the office. Instead we’re surrounded by our peers – likeminded individuals sharing cultural norms. Research has shown that colleagues who swear at each other (in a jocular way) trust each other more, work more effectively together and feel closer than those who don’t.

Perhaps the most obvious use for swearing is to withstand pain – physical or emotional. In her world famous Ted Talk, Amy Cuddy told us to strike a ‘power pose’ to boost confidence and lower stress. Since then it’s been discovered that an expletive is just as good for making us feel better under pressure.

So, ditch the office swear jar and expansive postures. Swearing is only human and it says more about us than we give it credit for.


Swearing Is Good For You, The Amazing Science of Bad Language, by Emma Byrne