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#%*#!!! Swearing in the workplace

Angry man on phone

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: It has been a tough year so far for Goldman Sachs. There was that fraud lawsuit from the Securities and Exchange Commission. The half billion dollar check that Goldman had to write to settle that suit. An 83 percent drop in profits a couple of weeks ago. And now, according to the Wall Street Journal, they're not even allowed to swear about it anymore. The paper says Goldman's telling its employees to stop swearing in e-mails. Their foul language about some of those fraud-related transactions came back to bite 'em when Senator Carl Levin gave a public e-mail reading a couple of weeks ago.

Sen. Carl Levin: "Look what your sales team was saying about Timberwolf? Boy, that Timberwolf was one sh*t deal. They sold that sh*t deal." Whatever it was, it was an internal Goldman document.

Swearing alienates people, gets you in trouble at work but still we do it. How come? For that we've called Jesse Sheidlower. He's editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary. Jesse, welcome to the program.

Jesse Sheidlower: Thank you for having me.

Ryssdal: Swearing is something that a whole lot of people do. But swearing somehow in the workplace is a little bit different.

Sheidlower: People swear all the time, but there are always going to be circumstances where it's not appropriate. In some workplaces, it might be appropriate. It's what everyone does, it's part of the atmosphere. In other places, it might be extremely improper, and you can't make a blanket rule about it, because it really depends on what the situation is.

Ryssdal: Of course, the blanket rule in most places is, you can't swear here, 'cause somebody is going to be offended.

Sheidlower: Saying a rule like that, covers up the fact that not all swearing is in fact offensive. Sometimes, you're saying words just for a sense of camaraderie or just to get along with other people or because the nature of the office is very informal. If you wanted to make a rule like, don't insult anyone, that's a kind of different thing. People often confuse the two, but they're not identical.

Ryssdal: How does swearing build camaraderie? Help me out with that one.

Sheidlower: Well, because it allows you to identify the situation to something where you're trusting people that you can use a kind of language that's less formal or less proper than you normally would do. Or to express emotions that might be stronger than what you would normally express. And it's really the same kind of thing as other kinds of social behavior, where if you were at a company dinner... There's a difference between going out for a formal dinner or having a picnic, where if you have a picnic and you're eating with your hands, that's showing something about how you're getting along with other people and how you expect them to react to you and it's the same thing here I think.

Ryssdal: What do you make of this decree from Goldman Sachs that they can't use cuss words in e-mails anymore?

Sheidlower: Well, I think it's a matter of public relations more than anything else. I mean, whether or not you use offensive language, you could say things that could be problematic. And whether you say some stronger version of "this is a crappy deal" or if you said that in a more formal way, it doesn't really matter. But it will certainly look worse if you're going to use a slang term, because it suggests you don't really care.

Ryssdal: So low quality will become the euphemism for poop?

Sheidlower: Well, it might. It might.

Ryssdal: One more thing about this though. We were talking about this story around the conference table this morning and we got on to talking about how journalists swear a lot. And somebody said, "You know what, that's just who we are. Journalists just swear." And I imagine, that around Goldman they say, "You know, we're Wall Street guys and we're tough and we just swear." Does, that make sense?

Sheidlower: There are certainly some professions that are known for swearing a lot. I mean, stereotypically, stevedores for example, but there are a number of them that do. I mean yes, journalists will swear a lot, and Wall Street guys will swear a lot, and soldiers will swear a lot and all sorts of people will swear a lot. Many of these groups probably do think they're somewhat unique in how much they swear.

Ryssdal: Is there a lot of cussing around there at the Oxford English Dictionary offices?

Sheidlower: Not too much. Only when we're talking about the words themselves.

Ryssdal: Jesse Sheidlower at the Oxford English Dictionary. His book by the way, is called, "The F Word." Jesse, thanks a lot.

Sheidlower: Thank you.

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