During 2004, I received a promotion into middle management and moved to The Hague (NL) to manage the Atlantic Basin LNG business. Shortly after moving to Europe, I was sent to an assessment center for three days where senior Shell managers and paid consultants evaluated my competencies as a middle manager. After taking written psychological and situational tests, I spent several hours with the assessors going over the results and received much needed feedback. I created an improvement plan with action items to complete over the next year that hopefully would improve my leadership skills. My supervisor and assessors periodically met with me to discuss my progress.
After the assessment year, I flew to Philadelphia and drove to the University of Pennsylvania to attend an intensive two-week leadership course at the Wharton School of Business. I, along with about 30 of my Shell colleagues from around the world, spent many hours each day hearing lectures from the Wharton faculty and performing various assignments. Sunday was our only day to relax. At the end of this exhausting two-week course, I boarded a plane with a stuffed binder of reading material to return to the Netherlands. I had my regular job, along with more leadership assignments, to perform over the next several months.
One of the distinguished Wharton business professors who lectured us was an older gentleman who arrived at our class sloppily dressed with his hair badly in need of a comb. This did not bother me as some of my undergraduate engineering professors had similar traits. What bothered me was that he constantly swore during his presentation. This wasn’t the occasional swear word acclaimed within a joke or out of anger. It was just a part of his regular vocabulary. As his lecture proceeded, I became more upset at him as I had traveled thousands of miles to one of the best business schools in the world to learn about business leadership only to hear from a top academic professor who constantly swore. At the end of the course, I (and others) strongly expressed to the class organizers that this professor should not be included in future Shell leadership courses. Sadly, I remembered his swearing, not his presentation.
I am not a prude but the English language is changing for the worse. Swearing is now commonplace. In 1939, in the Academy award-winning movie, Gone with the Wind, Rhett Butler utters his famous last words to Scarlett O’Hara, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” My father told me that his father was so shocked when he saw the movie that he refused to allow his children to see it. The only time I heard my father swear was when I accidentally ran full speed into him spilling his hot coffee all over his business suit just before he left for work. As I remember this incident today, perhaps his utterance was justified.
During my childhood, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was canceled in 1969 by network censors. Tom and Dick Smothers would today be classified as a tame family show when compared to most TV sitcoms. Swearing and sex fill modern network channels. I do not believe that this trend is improving our culture.
Should you swear at work? Business is becoming less formal but is it appropriate to pepper your presentations with swear words like my Wharton business professor? In an April 11, 2022 Wall Street Journal article (Sure, Work Makes Us Want to Swear. But Should You? These people dropped f-bombs at the office. Here’s what happened.), Rachel Feintzeig analyzed how and when to swear. “Done right, swearing can provide an emotional release. … She’s never the first one to let an expletive slip, and she never does it in front of bosses. … It’s the swearer’s responsibility to read the room, and immediately apologize if a listener bristles.” As I read Feintzeig’s WSJ article, I searched for ethics, morality, or just plain good character. The article centered on individuality and promoting oneself. “To him [Wil Reynolds, the founder of the digital marketing agency Seer Interactive], swearing is the same as the dreadlocks in his hair or the flip flops he wears on stage at conferences. It makes him feel like himself—confident, comfortable, able to do better work.”
Swearing has been in use since before biblical times and Scripture speaks about this subject:
Ephesians 5:4 “Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk; but instead, let there be thanksgiving.” (NRSV)
Colossians 3:8 “But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.” (NRSV)
James 3:10 “From the same mouth come blessings and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” (NRSV)
Clean speech is character building while habitual swearing is character degrading, both to the individual swearing and those within hearing distance. The question as to the appropriateness of swearing within our modern work community does not reside within the realm of promoting one’s career or individuality, but in whose image we are created and what we are called to be. The English language contains over 170,000 words while the number of taboo words are about 70 or 0.04%. Those that concentrate their vocabulary on the 70 taboo words miss out on the delights of the 170,000+ English words. Our vocabulary does matter all the time. Swearing is not what we are called to do.
Great topic and sound conclusions that everyone in business should consider. Thanks Ken!