I recently read an interesting article on The Wall Street Journal discussing the use of colorful language in business settings. It prompted me to re-post an earlier piece I authored on the same subject.

While both perspectives cover some of the same ground, the article in The Journal hedges a bit too much for my taste. You’ll find my piece a bit more direct and firm in expressing there is NEVER a good time to drop the F-bomb.

Okay, I know business is far less formal today than in times past. I understand many people are more tolerant of colorful language than they used to be. In fact, some even encourage the use of profanity as a means of being true to one’s authentic self. Case in point – The Journal article stated: “Deployed at the right moment and in the right setting, a well-chosen curse word can motivate a team, dissolve tension or win over an audience.” If you can’t motivate a team, dissolve tension, or win over an audience without cursing, then I would suggest your toolbox might be a bit light. Call me old school if you will, but I don’t buy any of the aforementioned arguments as legitimate in supporting the use of indiscreet, inappropriate, and unprofessional language.

Before I go any further, let me state for the record that I’m not a prude, nor am I a mama’s boy. I’ve traveled the world (23 countries and counting), spent years in athletic locker rooms, served in the military, and have been in my fair share of interesting places. I’m also not going to come at this topic by presenting a religious argument, or from the perspective of academic elitism. That said, I am going to tell you what I think of the value of possessing a great vocabulary. Moreover, I will comment on what I believe to be appropriate and inappropriate use of speech, and I’ll do it all without pulling any punches.

While today’s rant has been brewing for quite some time, the following thoughts spawned from the regretfully sad reality there is virtually no public place you can venture into without being subjected to someone’s total lack of verbal courtesy. If that isn’t bad enough, the use of vulgarity has pervaded the business world to the extent you’re hard-pressed to get through the day without having to deal with it in some form or fashion. As a leader, is this acceptable to you? It is not for me.

I recently viewed a YouTube video of a very highly regarded speaker, and simply could not believe the presentation was so heavily laced with profanity. The powerful message being espoused was only weakened by the sloppy and offensive language that was so unnecessarily inserted. It’s been my experience the best leaders and professionals have no need for the use of profanity. Here’s a thought…a leader should strive to inspire, motivate, and challenge others to a better and greater end, but never should a leader dilute their message to the lowest common denominator.

Stop for a moment and consider this – even if you don’t feel the use of profanity is offensive, I guarantee you someone within earshot definitely does. So my question is this: is it more important to you to exercise your personal discretion (indiscretion??), or to exercise consideration for others? Here’s the cold hard truth – if you think your profanity isn’t offending anyone, you’re just plain wrong. It’s not a matter of whether or not I can handle it, because trust me when I tell you I’ve heard it all before, but why should my wife, daughter, mother, etc. have to endure it?

Does profanity even bother you in the slightest, or have you become so desensitized you don’t even notice what I’ve just described as being true? In this author’s humble opinion, there is absolutely no value whatsoever in coloring your verbal communications with expletives. As noted above I’ve seen a lot in my life, and experience has shown me the use of profanity typically boils down to an individual being guilty of having one or more of the following flaws:

  1. Lack of Intelligence: The English language offers us the choice of so many wonderful adjectives, analogies, abilities to paint word pictures, and to use a variety of other descriptors, such that there is no need to substitute with expletives. The insertion of a four-letter word for “emphasis” usually only points out the speaker lacks command of his/her vocabulary. Nothing flashes “stupid” like the use of profanity. Don’t make the mistake of appearing to be uneducated if you’re not.
  2. Laziness: We have all met bright people who swear. This usually means they either think they’re smarter than everyone else so people will put up with their use of profanity, or they have just fallen into a rut and are too lazy to work on improving their verbal communication skills. Either scenario is a negative label professional should not desire to be tagged with.
  3. Poor Anger Management: People who are not quick on their feet, or do not possess adequate conflict resolution skills, often revert to profanity as a safety net of sorts. If all else fails, people who fall into this category resort to attempting to intimidate the other party with the use of profanity (see # 4 below). People identified as having anger management issues typically don’t reach their full potential without learning better skills. If you would rather spend your career advancing in the ranks, as opposed to spending time in counseling or coaching sessions, lose the profanity.
  4. Insecurity: People who lack confidence in themselves and/or their abilities often try to bolster other people’s perception of them by using off-color language as an attempt to feign strength and power. Here’s a tip…it doesn’t work. Profanity won’t intimidate anyone (at least not any worthy opponent), and will likely only lessen your image with the audience you are so desperately trying to impress.
  5. Socially Inappropriate Behavior: The showoff, ego-maniac, substance abuser, the female trying to be “one of the boys” or the wannabe comedian are all examples of socially inappropriate behavior, which oftentimes results in the use of profanity. Nobody likes a show-off, substance abuse is never a good thing, most people don’t find it appealing to associate with women who curse like the proverbial drunken sailor, and inappropriate jokes are more likely to get you a sexual harassment charge than a laugh. Even if you do elicit a brief chortle from your audience, they will likely not be left with the impression you were hoping for. Here’s a Myattism for you: “when in doubt, remember vulgarity doesn’t add value.”

Bottom line…few things make an impact, or lack thereof, like the words you allow to flow from your lips. Regardless of your station in life, vocabulary absolutely matters…It matters to an even greater degree for those in positions of leadership. I welcome your comments below but remember that I’ll only publish those comments written without the use of expletives…