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The Pitfalls of Profanity

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Several years ago, a woman came to my office to sell me her media-training service. The meeting went well, but something bothered me — her language. Actually, she only used two common swear words and only used each of them a few times. They were words I'd heard many times from women as well as men. In fact, I'd often used them myself.

She didn't offend me, but I felt the occasion was inappropriate. We were meeting for the first time, and she was trying to sell me something. It was business, not a casual conversation between friends. I thanked her for coming but never used her service.

Shortly thereafter, I invited a man to lunch because he was a specialist in an area of communications that my company needed. I brought along Jane, my account executive. Before we had even ordered our food, he had shocked Jane with his candid use of profanity, including a word that most women consider the most vile of them all. She recoiled and was speechless through most of the meal. I didn't use his services, either.

In both cases, I did what most people would do, which was to avoid telling them that I thought they were out of line. However, mentioning it to them might have prevented them from swearing in future meetings that meant potential business for them.

The use of foul language has become so common
that some people don't think twice, or once, before letting it fly. And rarely do others say anything. As a consequence, everyone goes merrily about their business without realizing that some people are passing judgment on them.

Maybe it is true that everyone swears, but no one swears everywhere. The fact that we all have places where we know it is forbidden is an acknowledgment that it is not perfectly acceptable. And maybe the fact that profanity is widely used is a good excuse for joining the crowd, but it is not a reason for swearing. It really doesn't accomplish much, other than to cut through the formality and show that you are a relaxed person, easy to talk to. It doesn't earn you any respect or admiration. It doesn't display your mastery of the English language, your wit, your charm, your intelligence, your maturity, or your consideration for others. It's just not very professional.

In today's casual society, does it really matter? Apparently, the days are long gone when gentlemen didn't swear in front of ladies and ladies didn't swear. The genders are approaching equality in terms of vulgarity. And we hate being hypocrites, knowing we swear just about everywhere except on the job.

Maybe restraint has something to do with civility. After all, there are many things we do and say on our own time that we don't do and say in public. And maybe some of those things we really shouldn't do so often, even on our own time. Maybe that has something to do with character.

I guess, in a stressful world, we like to relax and break rules as often as we can, as long as we aren't breaking any laws. But maybe, just maybe, reducing our use of offensive language would restore a bit of civility and good manners to our personal worlds, improve the perception others have of us, and give a small boost to our self-esteem.

James V. O'Connor is a public relations professional and the author of Cuss Control: The Complete Book on How to Curb Your Cursing. Visit for more information.
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