Language etiquette in the workplace

by Staff - Original publish date: January 19, 2012

Dear Annette,

Please help! I am in a small office, and two coworkers, one a man and one a woman, curse all the time. I really don't like it, but I can't change my cubicle space because I work closely with these people. How can I get them to stop using such ugly language without antagonizing them?

Same to you, buddy

Dear Buddy,

Language is a tool for inclusion in culture, and in some workplaces expressions such as "Hey, hockey puck! How on top of that are you?" might easily replace "Are you on track with your deadline?" Yet it's never a good idea to suggest that your crisis communications strategy consists of comparing others unfavorably to sports equipment or repeating a limited vocabulary. The only F-word anyone should use in the workplace is fabulous.

The reason you are so uncomfortable, I suspect, is that profanity relies for its effect on the shock value of imagined, acrobatic scenarios that are alarming to visualize and all-too-frequently involve relatives. Not what you expect in an environment where people's livelihoods are at stake.

In the proper context, of course, profanity can be delightfully creative and amusing. I recall the time I spent working under a retired naval officer when I was an impressionable young person with an excellent memory. With gratitude I still rely on fragments from Commander Carl's arsenal of epithets in moments of extreme provocation, life-threatening emergency, or rush-hour traffic.

Still, I rely on my stylist to make my hair do what it does, on my dog Dickie to be a universal accessory and companion - and on linguistic understatement to be my stalwart friend.

You are unlikely to teach your coworkers by example. And no retailer advertising in any of the catalogs I read has introduced a filth filter small enough for the average cubicle. Alas, you must speak to them in your own unsullied words. Expect pressure to conform to lower standards. Meet any suggestion that you "lighten up" in the name of collegiality with polysyllabic indifference. Direct speech, such as "I don't like it when you do that and I want you to use other language" might also work.

Failing that, you could always give them a dictionary.

Stay fabulous,