by Wilma Bedford
During the making of Gone with the Wind (Clarke Gable, Vivien Leigh) in 1939 special permission had to be obtained to use the vulgarity damn, as in “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” when Rhet told Scarlet O’Hara that he was going to leave her. Since then this phrase has been adapted so many times that it has now become quite archaic.
Over a period of 80 years society has become somewhat more lenient. The standards for what is acceptable behaviour have also changed so much that language has also become more casual in the informal culture of the modern workplace.
Psychologists agree that in some situations expletives are admissible, such as when you get hurt, when you are frustrated, or when you get angry. This is a relief of emotion.
But what about swearing in the workplace? Be careful, even if your boss swears like a trooper. Coarse language is sometimes used in the workplace to create camaraderie and solidarity and to handle stress, but it also creates an intimidating environment for other workers and puts them under unnecessary pressure. To some people swearing can be a way of relieving emotions while others may find it offensive and see it as harassment.
Abusive language and swearing aimed directly at somebody could land the abuser in big trouble, especially if it is used in the presence of a third person and is intended to humiliate or threaten. Sexist or racist, humiliating language is discriminating and against the law.
In terms of the Labour Law harassment is not only sexually unacceptable behaviour, but also includes insults, abuse of power, threats and constant criticism that may be undermining. Employees have the right to be treated with dignity and respect.
How does one handle crude language in the workplace?
- Specifically ask about the firm’s policy regarding the use of inappropriate language. Be aware that summary dismissal can follow, especially if clients feel insulted and the reputation of the company is compromised. If there is such a policy it should be sent to employees regularly by email.
- Do not assume that it is acceptable to swear or that there is no policy just because nobody has complained yet.
- Determine the context within which the language was used; was it directed at a specific person and intended to insult, intimidate or threaten?
- Admonish the person whose language is unacceptable in private.
- If you are at the receiving end of insulting language, make a note of the time, date, witnesses and what was said and send a direct request to your supervisor that the matter be investigated immediately or ask that the offensive behaviour stop immediately or, if a dispute is declared, that the matter be referred to the CCMA.
- Watch your own language because it reflects your upbringing and level of literacy.
A 2012 survey by Career Builder (Chicago) found that employees who used crude language were promoted less often by firms. Employers also thought that crude language reflected poorly on employees’ professionality. 71% were of the opinion that inappropriate language indicated a lack of self-control and maturity, while 54% believed that crude language depicted an employee as less intelligent.