Using profane language and working in an investment bank may seem as apt a combination as wearing a stetson and rounding up cattle. But swearing at work is a difficult business. If you get it right, you can end up looking like Jamie Dimon – who earlier this week insisted there was ‘no bullsh*tting’ about the London Whale. If you get it wrong, you can end up looking like Mel Gibson in the midst of a meltdown.
These are the golden rules for workplace profanity.
1. Assess the culture
Cursing is a very context-dependent activity, said Oliver James, the psychologist and author of a new book on office politics. “If you’re watching a football match, there will be a lot of swearing and it’s entirely appropriate to swear,” said James. “The same often applies on the trading floor. But I suspect, swearing in a commercial law team would not be approved of at all.”
2. Swear about issues, not individuals
Dimon’s profanity was used to rebuff the suggestion that the Bruno Iksil affair was covered up. This constitutes acceptable swearing, said Roy Cohen, a New York City careers coach and author of the Wall Street Professionals’ Survival Guide.
“You can refer to situations using a swear word, but never refer to individuals using a swear word,” said Cohen. “If you’re dealing with an issue that’s somewhat contentious or dramatic then using a swearword can emphasize your conviction and intensity.”
3. Use scatalogical rather than sexual swearwords
Dimon’s chosen curse was scatalogical rather than sexual. This is how it should be, said Cohen.
“On the richter scale for swearwords, bullsh*t is not offensive swearword,” Cohen pointed out. “There are other words that are far more offensive and can be taken personally.”
4. Don’t swear upwards
Swearing is a hierarchical issue. “Peer to peer swearing may be fine,” said James. “Equally, it may be fine to swear when reporting back to your boss about something that’s been going on – that may be part of the way your workplace communicates extreme ideas and emotions, but never swear at your boss.”
“Using swearwords at work when you’re junior could be viewed as insubordination,” said Cohen. “There’s a hiearchy to swearing – it’s often acceptable to swear to peers, but not to people more senior than you.”
5. Don’t swear if you’re a woman
If Jamie Dimon were Jane Dimon, his swearing might be less acceptable. “When women swear, it’s viewed very differently to when men swear,” said Cohen. “Cursing women are often perceived as uptight tough bitches. When men swear it’s just viewed as an aspect of their personality and character. It’s an unfair distinction, but that’s how it is.”