Do you cuss at work?

I have been thinking lately about workplace behavior.

For example, is it OK to cuss at work? I have heard colleagues use all kinds of language, but I have noticed that with a few notable exceptions, I mainly hear the men doing the cussing. When they do, it seems like (they and) the students think it is cool.   So I wonder to myself, could I get away with that? Should I? Would it make the students uncomfortable? Is that OK?

In general I am pretty conservative on the matter. I tend to censor myself, even in conversations with colleagues when students are not around. I regard this as a choice, and not necessarily something imposed by my institution. I also have had experiences that lead me to believe at times a more permissive attitude might serve me well.

Here’s an example: a few times I have found myself in regular meetings where I am the only female faculty member. In this environment, if I am somewhat serious, the men sometimes seem uncomfortable and constrained. Why do I think this observation isn’t me being overly sensitive? Well, in one of those meetings I (somewhat impulsively) told an off-color joke. A joke someone in construction had taught me. The whole room changed. The men laughed, relaxed, smiled at each other and asked why it took me so long to show I was one of the gang. From that point on the meetings were much more fun and jovial. Not crude or rude — just more fun and pleasant.

Nowadays when I find myself in a situation where I am one of few women, I tend to refrain from off-color jokes, but I do try to lighten up and joke a bit. It is amazing to watch the room relax. However, the power and necessity of this behavioral choice still feels a bit odd, no matter how nice it feels to be welcome and included.

I love experiencing laughter and joy at work.  I want to laugh with my students and colleagues in a way that is inclusive and not at anyone’s expense, but humor is tricky.  Much of it comes laden with history and assumptions. Other bits have a strong wince factor – like slipping on a banana peel.

So I have some questions about workplace behavior.  How do you experience humor at work?  What kinds of humor do you think should be welcome on the job? Do you ever experience humor as a form of microagression?  Do you cuss at work?

17 thoughts on “Do you cuss at work?

  1. Hum, I cuss in general, but I mostly cuss when I’m speaking my native language and rarely in English. I also find that if you cuss as a foreigner it’s more acceptable because they think you’re not sure of what you’re saying (wink!), but I would cuss with the head of the animal facility and not with my department chair. Never cuss at people in the lab, but occasionally cuss about administrative problems in their presence. I come from a country where explicitly sexual and “off color” jokes are the norm and it took me a while to understand why it was a big deal in the US, i.e. microagression or plain aggression (I used to have a boss who walked up to my bench and went “What the f–k is this?” at my Southern blots. A woman, btw. I was an undergrad.). Right now, I actually do my best to shield the lone boy in the lab from our constant discussions about “girly things”. Our humor in general is science based, but we also share a lot of political/situational comedy videos…a lot of people in the lab are foreign or foreign-born so we have a much higher tolerance for stereotyping of our respective countries and a deep interest in cultural-based comedy…

  2. there was a (highly questionable) post from two TT while male profs ENCOURAGING cursing as “authentic” and “in touch” with students. I very much think that comes from a place of privilege. they don’t fear being seen as bitchy women, angry black men, etc – or having their authority in the classroom undermined. I don’t necessarily want to post the link, it was in CHE or IHE, but yes, it does seem gendered.

  3. A math professor I know talked about a meeting in which he suggested that his math department colleagues use “faux confusion” as a method to encourage participation from students. It was then pointed out to him that female-presenting professors and those with accents would often be judged as truly confused and less capable if they took that approach. It was eye-opening. On a different note, I’ve had professors known for their cussing and jovial natures bring me to task for a colloquialism (I think I used the term “jacked up” as part of a small presentation to colleagues I was quite familiar with). You describe an odd dynamic which sounds like a male-dominated room may be more acutely aware of the outlying female and act… well, it’s difficult to describe. As if they were in “mixed company” and therefore must tread carefully? Perhaps there is a sense of nervousness that they’ll be inadvertently offensive? The fact that there is tension there at all point to a need for greater integration, that’s for sure. And the fact that you’re required to be the catalyst and assert yourself as “one of the group” (cough,guys,cough) is…sad.

    By the way, I just read your post on microaggressions. Thank you for writing that. I tend to be conversationally dominant and am learning how to navigate the power dynamics in group settings, backing up the voices of other women and other minority groups while avoiding the ire of male colleagues. It’s exhausting, and it’s nice to have those experiences validated by a woman in a position of power. (Also slightly disheartening–it NEVER stops?? :))

  4. I cuss regularly. I’m female in a male-dominated profession. Some of my cussing occurs around my grad students: they hear my uncensored thoughts about whatever research problem we’re wrangling, and I think in colorful language. So far, my grad students haven’t seemed to mind (although they don’t swear as much as I do!). I also swear around other faculty members and collaborators occasionally. No one look has looked askance, and at least one of my colleagues swears way more than I do. I change my behavior around the dean and members of other departments, though mostly subconsciously.

    I did apologize after accidentally swearing lightly while teaching–I think I had messed up a derivation or was referring to some bad analytic situation. I apologized because I know many undergrads are still innocent. I remember way back when, in those warped pre-pubescent years, when I thought swear words would damage my brain or something. I do wish people would get over it, though I recognize some people can’t or won’t. (I should emphasize I’m never swearing at people. I just use swear words to widen descriptive ranges.)

    By reputation, I am apparently considered rather reserved and kind. I don’t think the cussing does much damage.

    I’ve not noticed a gendered aspect to it. The proper sample sizes just aren’t there for me.

  5. I actually accidentally swore yesterday in a lecture I was giving to undergrads. Whoops. I generally follow the rule of “swearing is okay during fieldwork, but not okay any other time,” and even if I was more willing to be uncensored among my colleagues, I really shouldn’t swear in front of my students. It creates an odd power dynamic, and it doesn’t fit with the rest of my teaching persona.

  6. I’m inclined to say that based on empirical research about gender differences in acceptable social behaviours/norms that the socio-cultural environment do give more leeway to men using profanity, but personally I feel that public reception of said behaviour depends on the personality the individual as well.

  7. You present a topic I think that has evolved over the decades. Many workplaces are now so PC, many report it nauseating. But what is clear, is the rules of the game have changed, and seem to be always changing.

    I once interviewed for a very good position. There were 5 days of interviews. They put me up in the best accommodation in town- wined & dined me to death. On the third day, they said I was their guy- that it was a done deal. They said they were sold on me, and all that remained was for them to convince me it was a good fit. That was a huge relief, because it took the pressure off, and we could chat with much more comfort.

    Then, on the fourth night, we had a big dinner at a swanky place- and everyone imbibed, myself included. Things really loosened up, and it was great fun. Then, I made one off-color joke (not racist, or sexual, or involving cuss words). Everyone at the table recoiled. As this was in the deep south, I realized, without intending so, that I deeply offended them- whereas this humor would have been well accepted elsewhere. What a mistake.

    The next day I was driven to the airport in the early afternoon by two administrators. As I departed, I said, “I will sign the agreements for the position you said you would be sending me via email, as soon as I get them.”

    They answered, “We no longer anticipate sending you anything. And by the way, good riddance.”

    This was a lesson I never forgot. So now, if any workplace interaction involves an underling or supervisor, my conversation is legit PC top to bottom. As for peers, I am more than willing to “loosen it up” off of the job site- but, you must be aware that you are always in earshot of an underling or supervisor.

    I think we have lost a lot in this PC universe. I think we are well beyond the point of where most people feel comfortable “being themselves” in the workplace anymore.

    • I can’t speak to your personal anecdote, but I do want to point out that the term PC has a lot of loaded baggage. A lot of people use it in a derogatory way to refer to anything to do with equality or social justice. I think that it’s important to keep things professional, to never punch down, and to learn how to apologize when a mistake is made (because we’ll all make them, right?).

      • I agree “PC” does have many connotations. I’ve never seen any need to “punch down” as it were. Vigorous debate I think is very healthy- but there are those who seem to use PC-ness to stifle such debate. I think there are many examples recently on college campuses. My opinion has always been that a person can argue almost any position applying appropriate language and debate tactics- even though I might find their position morally reprehensible. And so what concerns me is that academia short circuits many such debates by labeling them “hate speech” and what not. I would much prefer to have my sensibilities offended, rather than have some administrator put on the blinders for me, and everyone else.

        • Elliot,

          I don’t agree with you that any person can argue almost any position by applying appropriate language and debate tactics. I think you are overlooking some privilege when you say this, because this assumes everyone is already on some equal playing field and that everyone should be able to hear academic arguments without adverse affects on them.

          However, this does not mean it is not possible to have discussions about such topics. Stifling debate does not mean removing the topic as “taboo” or never talking and never thinking about it.

          For one perspective on discussion vs. debate, please see:

          I would summarize it as: Debate is about sticking to a belief, listening to the other parties to find ways they are wrong, and trying to arrive at a conclusion or to “win”. On the other hand, discussion is about suspending your own beliefs (so that you can hear the others), listening to others to find common ground and understanding, and the goal is to learn.

          So, I don’t agree with your that vigorous debate is always healthy nor always necessary. There is a time and place for debates. I am not you so I don’t know for sure which experiences you mean when you say “PC-ness” stifles debate, but usually when I hear this statement, people refer to the fact that for some issues, there is no critical thinking or conversations going on because there is no debate. But I want to say that for many topics, many people will learn more and expand their thinking further with discussion as the goal rather than debate.

          • Addendum to post above: where I said “discussion” above, I meant to say “dialogue”. Sorry for the mixup, I’m still learning some terminology!

          • I believe there are many examples of campuses restricting speech, and that we see more and more of this everyday. I believe it simply comes down to, as I have characterized it, completely eliminating points of view (and it does not matter if I or anyone else concurs or disagrees with those ideas)- on the basis of the potential of “offending someone’s sensitivity.”

            That is PC-ism run amok. I could care less if someone offends my “sensibilities”. In fact, I would become worried- especially in places proclaiming to be the marketplaces of ideas- if I was never offended.

            We’ll just have to agree to disagree, because it appears we are on opposite ends of the spectrum concerning the basic tenets of academia.

  8. I cuss a fair amount (I’m a junior woman in a male-dominated field), but I tend to stay away from gendered swear words and I never cuss at people. I censor myself at first in front of new people, basically until I prove my worth, and then I don’t care who I cuss in front of… Except my mother in law. I still try not to cuss in front of her (so much pearl clutching) but even she is starting to get used to my sailor-like slip-ups.

  9. I work hard not to cuss at work. While young I was a big league cusser, and had men correct me on it. Frustrated me no end since I was working in a “man’s job” (field geologist/marine geology) with men. And was regularly pushed to the limit on physical and emotional issues. Now an occasional “dammit” at the computer is about the worst. In my Ph.D. work, my adviser went out of his way to try to get me to loosen up. Little did he know I using the f-word under my breath at him frequently but he didn’t hear it.

    To be honest one of my male cohorts also tries not to cuss. We both worked outside of academia and as close friends chatting at the end of a rough day if we slipped, it would be a giggle and “oops!” So, it’s part of trying not to be field staffers any more in our cases.

  10. Pingback: Everyday Self-Management – As A Woman | Woman Of Science

  11. I recently moved from a high-volume kitchen where I was the only female to an office environment. It was just kind of the culture of the kitchen to not only swear, constantly and profusely, but to also be dirty and inappropriate, the kind of things that some people would consider sexual harassment. Listening to dirty jokes all day didn’t bother me, but I can see how it would make some uncomfortable. But anyways, I was terrified that I wasn’t going to be able to keep my mouth under control at my new job, and I have struggled a bit, but I’ve found that it doesn’t offend anyone on my team, and that I’m not the only one with a dirty mouth. I can’t describe how much of a relief that was, and I didn’t really have a place to express that relief because to most it’s such a trivial matter (you’re an adult, you should be able to keep your mouth in check and be polite at all times etc. etc.) But seriously, thank fucking god!

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