I swear ...

As lan­guage grows more pro­fane, of­fice talk takes a turn for the curse.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - People - By KIM ODE Of­fice life is see­ing a rise in ca­sual pro­fan­ity. — TNS

THERE’S a rea­son we call it the “f-bomb”.

Like a bomb, the par­tic­u­lar pro­fan­ity be­gin­ning with “f” can be a pow­er­ful weapon.

Yet in of­fices, hall­ways, con­fer­ence rooms and cu­bi­cles, peo­ple are drop­ping the f-word into daily ban­ter with no more ill will than lob­bing a pen­cil.

Mostly, this is driven by young peo­ple who’ve grown up hear­ing it in movies, mu­sic and ca­ble TV and read­ing it on so­cial me­dia. They don’t con­sider it a BFD to say it, and are sur­prised when oth­ers do.

“We are in a time of flux,” said Ben­jamin Ber­gen, au­thor of What The F: What Swear­ing Re­veals About Our Lan­guage, Our Brains, and Our­selves.

Lan­guage is al­ways evolv­ing, which of­ten causes ten­sion, but Ber­gen said we may be in the midst of the big­gest gen­er­a­tion gap ever.

“A few cen­turies ago, a stu­dent’s ‘zounds’ or ‘gad­zooks’ would turn an English teacher’s face pur­ple,” he said. In 1972, heads spun when co­me­dian Ge­orge Car­lin fa­mously named “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Tele­vi­sion” – which tech­ni­cally still is true, at least for broad­cast TV.

But TVs to­day are mere ap­pli­ances to dig­i­tal na­tives, out­paced by a new world of screens on com­put­ers, phones and pads fun­nelling con­tent for which we, as sub­scrib­ing view­ers, are our own cen­sors.

Ber­gen de­scribes a 20-year-old wak­ing up to check her Twit­ter feed “and can see (the f-bomb) a hun­dred times be­fore break­fast.” So when she ar­rives at work and won­ders aloud with pro­fane cu­rios­ity who emp­tied the cof­feepot with­out start­ing an­other, she be­lieves she’s sim­ply ex­press­ing her dis­may.

Some co-work­ers may not miss a beat, may even laugh. But such lan­guage can be­come a prob­lem if some­one – likely older, but not al­ways – over­hears and takes of­fence.

(A dis­tinc­tion: We’re not talk­ing about us­ing the word to be­rate or in­tim­i­date oth­ers, but as an en­er­getic ad­jec­tive to el­e­vate a strong emo­tion, even ex­press en­thu­si­asm.)

Karen Gureghian is a hu­man re­sources con­sul­tant with HR Busi­ness Part­ners in Minneapolis, United States. Her work of­ten takes her into of­fices where she has to sit in com­mon spa­ces and so hears the ebb and flow of con­ver­sa­tion.

Some­times, she said, two peo­ple use sim­i­lar lan­guage and nei­ther one is of­fended, “and that’s OK. But if you’re in a hall­way and peo­ple over­hear you and they’re of­fended, that could con­trib­ute to a hos­tile work en­vi­ron­ment”.

Drop­ping an f-bomb “isn’t il­le­gal, so to speak”, she added. “But some­times it’s pretty bad. I’m not of­fended, but af­ter a while, it can get kind of off-putting and makes me won­der about that per­son and their judg­ment.

“Are they get­ting their point across, or have they mis­read the room?”

What’s re­ally of­fen­sive?

Work­places are crea­tures of tra­di­tion, man­age­ment and stereo­type.

Lan­guage is in­flu­enced by age, class, en­vi­ron­ment and cul­ture. Lit­tle won­der, then, that ex­pec­ta­tions can clash – some­times un­ex­pect­edly.

One mil­len­nial who re­sponded to a Face­book query about work­place pro­fan­ity said he and his friends feel like they’re nav­i­gat­ing a world where they’re the potty mouths, so strive to dial it back. Yet as a white-col­lar en­gi­neer who in­spects power plants, he en­coun­ters ram­pant pro­fan­ity among some older, blue-col­lar em­ploy­ees.

“I am pretty much ex­pected to re­cip­ro­cate if I want them to re­spect me and lis­ten to my rec­om­men­da­tions,” he said, pre­fer­ring to re­main name­less be­cause he was de­scrib­ing clients. “It can be a strug­gle with be­ing taken se­ri­ously ver­sus be­ing pro­fes­sional, but you learn the proper bal­ance over time.”

While their pro­fan­ity may sur­prise him, it doesn’t of­fend him. What does, he said, is a ca­sual use of “ho­mo­pho­bic/racist/misog­y­nist lan­guage”.

Ber­gen said that jibes with sev­eral re­cent stud­ies in which peo­ple were asked to rate vul­gar words from most of­fen­sive to least of­fen­sive.

In one, where col­lege stu­dents rated 92 words con­sid­ered taboo, a word that also means ma­nure came in 49th. The f-bomb rated no higher than 13.

Among the dirt­ier dozen were words with sex­ual or re­li­gious roots.

“But the words they con­sid­ered most of­fen­sive were slurs,” Ber­gen said – terms that den­i­grate peo­ple based upon skin colour, re­li­gion, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, phys­i­cal or men­tal abil­i­ties.

In a way, Ber­gen said, this is good news: While young peo­ple may find the f-word no big deal, they are of­fended by slurs that tar­get and are specif­i­cally meant to hurt peo­ple.

A study last year of 1,500 of­fice work­ers by Wrike, a man­age­ment soft­ware com­pany, found that al­most seven in 10 mil­len­ni­als said they swear at work, com­pared with a lit­tle more than five out of 10 baby boomers.

About a third of mil­len­ni­als ex­plained that swear­ing can help strengthen a team, and that can re­flect en­thu­si­asm for their work.

In their view, an f-bomb is just an ad­jec­tive, used with­out over­think­ing it too much.

Yet at times, Ber­gen said, a lit­tle over­think­ing wouldn’t hurt.

“If you’ve judged your au­di­ence right and they, too, think this is an in­for­mal con­text, then they will judge you to be fun­nier, more hon­est, more ac­ces­si­ble, more ca­sual,” he said. “But if you’ve mis­cal­i­brated, and they don’t like you, then pro­fan­ity will make you seem un­hinged, out of con­trol, ir­ra­tional, undis­ci­plined.”

Overuse di­lutes po­tency

By many mea­sures, our cul­ture is more pro­fane than it was a gen­er­a­tion ago.

Martin Scors­ese’s 2014 film, The Wolf of Wall Street, in­cluded a record 506 f-bombs. The pre­vi­ous record holder was Spike Lee’s 1999 se­rial-killer drama Sum­mer of Sam, which con­tained 435 in­stances of the word.

Twit­ter and Face­book, con­sid­ered semi-pri­vate fo­rums, don’t screen for po­ten­tially of­fen­sive con­tent (although they both ban hate speech and threats).

Twit­ter coun­sels “block and ig­nore”, while Face­book notes: “Please keep in mind that some­thing you don’t like on Face­book may not go against our Com­mu­nity Stan­dards.” Three words: Win­nie the Pooh.

Min­ne­sota Vik­ings fans avidly post with pro­fan­ity on the team’s of­fi­cial Face­book page, ac­cord­ing to a cy­ber­se­cu­rity com­pany that stud­ied pages of the 12 play­off teams in Jan­uary 2016. Vikes fans were sec­ond only to Hous­ton in us­ing naughty words.

Even three in four mil­len­nial mums ad­mit to swear­ing in front of their kids, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey of 1,000 mil­len­nial par­ents by Kraft, mak­ers of the mod­ern mother’s lit­tle helper, boxed mac and cheese.

Kraft made a Mother’s Day video on YouTube about al­ter­na­tive swear words that par­ents can use around their lit­tle ones.

Host Melissa Mohr, an English pro­fes­sor who wrote Holy Sh(AS­TER­ISK)t: A Brief His­tory of Swear­ing, sug­gested say­ing, “What the frog?” or, “Get your shi­it­take mush­rooms ready for soc­cer prac­tice.”

The sheer pre­pon­der­ance of pro­fan­ity in some ways works to di­lute its po­tency.

“There’s this tread­mill that pro­fan­ity is on,” Ber­gen said. “A word may be in­nocu­ous, then gets con­scripted to per­form a new pro­fane duty, then falls off the end.”

Lau­rie Ben­nett, re­spond­ing to the Face­book query, said this: “I think so­cial me­dia has ac­tu­ally cleaned up my lan­guage in real life. I find so many posts of­fen­sive, it drives me in the other di­rec­tion.”

Norms come from the top

So what the heck is a work­place to do? “The stan­dards need to come from the top,” said Gureghian, the hu­man re­sources con­sul­tant. Yet th­ese days, who’s at the top may be chang­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to the Wrike study, 80% of mil­len­ni­als said they were more likely to swear if their boss does; only 60% of baby boomers said the same.

“As baby boomers are start­ing to re­tire, they’re not there to en­force things,” Gureghian said. “They used to be the ones to say, ‘This is the way we op­er­ate.’ Now some of my clients say the kids have taken over. So maybe this is the new norm.”

Ber­gen said that work­place lan­guage has al­ways been man­aged, and trusts that younger em­ploy­ees will fig­ure it out. New hires learn that there are both ef­fec­tive and in­ef­fec­tive ways to blend in.

“You learn what the norms are, who makes the rules,” he said. “The ones who are more ef­fec­tive are the ones who say the least at the be­gin­ning.”

In the scheme of things, Gureghian said, lan­guage stan­dards sim­ply are the lat­est in a long line of shifts in work­place norms.

Pierc­ings, once for­bid­den, now are com­mon. Tat­toos, once lim­ited to non-vis­i­ble body parts, are more tol­er­ated. Years ago, dress codes shifted to en­able women to wear slacks and men to ditch their ties.

Yet there re­main peren­nial hot but­tons. Like flip-flops.

“Every sum­mer, it’s the same,” she said, laugh­ing. “Some com­pany says, ‘We don’t want those flip-flops. We don’t care what they’re wear­ing – we just don’t want that sound around here.’”

It’s al­ways some­thing. – Star Tri­bune (Minneapolis)/Tri­bune News Ser­vice

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