Profanity in the Legal Workplace
I just read that using profanity enhances team building in the workplace. Say what? Apparently, a vocabulary of four-letter words brands you as part of the “in” group in the information technology industry, and the practice is spreading.
Undoubtedly, profanity now infuses popular culture in ways that were unthinkable to our parents. The references may be subtle — posters for the movie “Perfect Pitch 3” advertise “Last Call Pitches.” On the other hand, profanity is so pervasive in popular music that when songs are played on public airwaves, often more is bleeped out than left in.
This post was written several weeks before the January 23 release date for the book “Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language.”
Does That Mean You Can Use Profanity With Abandon?
No, you do not need to use vulgar language to be one of the guys — even if, perhaps especially if, you are a gal. When “Get To The Point” encourages lawyers to have a rich vocabulary, expanding it with profanity was not what we had in mind.
I worked at a law firm where the managing partner screamed and swore all day long. (My office was down the hall until I was able to transfer to another department, and I quit after 14 months.) One of the problems of working in an environment where profanity is the lingua franca is that the habit infects your entire vocabulary. This can offend your life partner and teach terrible habits to your children. Once profanity infuses your regular language patterns, it may emerge in completely inappropriate settings:
“Fudge me if that is admissible, Your Honor!”
“Great friggin’ sermon, Reverend!”
Whether to tolerate co-workers’ profanity depends on the setting. You can ignore others’ speech and remove yourself from it in many circumstances. You may have no choice but to be tolerant of others’ profanities if they are your superiors. The more immersed you are in an environment of frequent profanity, the more likely it is your own usage will be degraded.
Profanity can also constitute sexual harassment. #MeToo has heightened awareness of the issue and the liability that can result. As a manager, you may wish to issue written guidance about the use of profanity in the workplace, in part because it can regress into sexual harassment.
If you are not part of management, you can go to management or Human Resources, as appropriate. But, as has always been the case, this can backfire. Management may do nothing. You can become an outcast no one wants to work with or even lose your job. Most people want to keep their jobs, not create evidence for a wrongful discharge suit. Now that swearing-as-team-building is in vogue, you could be labeled as someone who is unable to get with the program. If you are in an intolerable environment, you will need to seek an escape as I did.
What About Clients?
How you react to a client’s use of profanity depends on the setting. Depending on your area of practice, client relations can be a tightrope walk between communicating (“I’d appreciate it if you would avoid that word in my office”), encouraging openness, building trust and not getting fired. You need the client to tell you the whole story in the client’s own words. But if you are meeting to explain deposition procedure, you will want to warn your client that using profanity can offend many people. Parts of the deposition may be read to a jury or otherwise enter the record in ways that could harm the client’s case.
In other circumstances, you may be entertaining clients, sometimes in situations that include consuming alcohol. Drinking at sporting events and parties may produce atypical behaviors, which could include vulgar language. If your comfort level permits, you can carouse with your client without expressing disapproval or using profanity yourself. At a large party, you can mingle elsewhere, but you sacrifice building rapport with this client, who might help you make rain. You may have to put on your game face and go with the flow. The person who uses profanity may never notice that you do not or may even approve of your careful diction. Never drink so much yourself that you are out of control in word or in deed.
Profanity as a team-building exercise is likely to come and go out of favor, but it may take a long time. Silicon Valley has been criticized as a testosterone-fueled milieu which, like the military, fosters profanity. IT management is reportedly striving to hire more women. As the gender ratio balances, we may see the end of the pro-profanity management theory. Or perhaps women will buy into it, and the acceptability bar for business language will lower.
Even if profanity becomes acceptable in more workplaces, lawyers who avoid it will be the ladies and gentlemen at the top of the profession.