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$#*! Workers Say: Chicagoans Have a Reputation for Using Colorful Language in the Cubicle

Chicago RedEye

09.20.2012

By Leonor Vivanco, @lvivancoAre you [bleeping] kidding me?

When it comes to swearing in the office, Chicago ranks third (behind Washington, D.C., and Denver), according to a recent study. Fifty-eight percent of residents said in a CareerBuilder survey that they swear at work. (The company is partly owned by Tribune Company, owner of RedEye.)

Forget being the city of big shoulders; we are a city of potty mouths. Damn right.

Consider reputed cuss master Mayor Emanuel, former Illinois Gov. Rod "[bleeping] golden" Blagojevich and Lincoln Park's Wieners Circle, where workers yell every known expletive to customers. Hey, Chicago has its tough-guy image to uphold.

Undoubtedly, some foul language isn't so shocking anymore. Cee Lo Green has a song called "[Bleep] You." Reality TV shows constantly are bleeped. The term F-bomb even made it last month into Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. But does all that make it appropriate to swear at the office?

The short answer, experts said, is that it depends.

Some work environments are informal-with casual attire, flexible hours and looser lips. Others are more buttoned-up and have policies against things such as swearing. For employees who feel overworked and underpaid as they face constant deadlines and mounting frustrations, shhh - ahem, swearing happens.

The unwritten rules can be tricky in figuring out whether it's OK to swear, said Brad Karsh, president of JB Training Solutions, a workplace consulting firm in Lakeview. "Just because other people in the office swear doesn't mean you have the right to do it. Just because you think it's appropriate, others may not," he said.

His advice is to avoid swearing unless you're very familiar with the culture. Take into account whether you're the new kid on the block, whether senior executives are around or whether there are co-workers nearby who might be offended.

"As long as you're doing it reasonably, as long as you're well established with the company, and as long as you're certain people in the room won't be offended, it's probably OK," Karsh said.

In the advertising world, anything goes. Three hours into Dave Theibert's first day of work, he heard coworkers swear. Four years later, he says he has the "worst mouth" at the office.

"I do absolutely cuss a significant amount in this office. The majority is out of frustration. Certainly, it kind of free flows out of my mouth," said Theibert, 27, senior program manager at a downtown advertising firm.

His word of choice depends on his mood and how angry he is, he said. He finds himself holding his tongue in certain situations. "When I'm working with individuals I don't see on an everyday basis and I don't have a personal rapport with, that's where that line is drawn," he said.

Most swearing is innocuous, said Timothy Jay, psychology professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and author of "Cursing in America." Swearing can even be beneficial, he said, by alleviating the frustration and building camaraderie. The dark side of cursing at work? It can be offensive to co-workers or customers, sexually harassing or threatening. It can hurt the company's credibility and cost business. It also can affect what bosses think of employees.

A majority of employers in the survey said workers who swear would be less likely to be promoted, would appear less intelligent and would have their professionalism questioned.

"Swearing in the office is all about power and status," Jay said. "You see the workers say they shift swearing less around bosses and more around colleagues," he said of the survey results.

The nationwide survey also showed that men report swearing more than women. Employees ages 18 to 24 were the age group least likely to swear at work.

Jaymie Gelino, 29, said she tries not to swear at work because of the stigma attached. But she has muttered the occasional "oh [bleep]" under her breath, quiet enough so not many colleagues can overhear.

"You don't want to be perceived as uneducated if you're going to use a cuss word versus using your words wisely," said Gelino, a senior financial analyst who lives in Schaumburg.

Using colorful language gives others instantaneous information, said Alexandra Levit, Chicago-based author of "Blind Spots: 10 Business Myths You Can't Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success."

"Be aware of its impact on your reputation and your persona as a confident, mature professional, just like the way you dress, the work you do, the way you conduct yourself, the way you shake hands and give eye contact," Levit said.

It's best to avoid it at the office, she said. "If you do it, you might look bad. But you'll never look bad not doing it."

In her first job after college, Farha Khan, now 29, let an "oh crap" slip when she did something wrong and her manager told her she can't blurt that out at work.

She currently works in the Loop as a quality control manager at a company contracted to process paperwork for the Indian Embassy where she monitors communications for language and tone.

"It's just disrespectful. It makes people uncomfortable," she said. Special attention needs to be paid to cultures and ethnicities that frown upon profanity, she said.

"I don't even swear with my friends unless I'm angry," Khan said. "I try to keep it clean."

 

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