The Swearing Threshold

Raise your hand if you’ve never uttered a swear word.

Go on.

I’ve yet to meet someone who hasn’t sworn at least once in their lives.

Yet there are many people who don’t like swearing, and many for whom swearing is simply a natural part of how they speak, and a way of expression themselves and letting off steam.

There’s a generational issue as well. The younger generation born after 2000 doesn’t really have a swear word that is taboo for them (except perhaps the “C” word), whereas my parents are still shocked at the “F” word.

The problem in social housing occurs when a service provider who doesn’t tolerate swearing in their personal or professional life meets it at the customer frontline.

There’s also the difference between using a swear word that is describing a situation and using it as a form of insult:

“This ***ing weather”

“Your ***ing customer service”

Some people can tolerate swear words as long as they aren’t aimed at them!

Calling someone a ***idiot” is no different to some as calling them an incompetent fool. But for others there is a bigger difference.

It’s all a question of difference and diversity. If we have a “no swearing, EVER” rule, there danger is that we put a block on a behaviour that even we have been guilty of at times. In some people, swearing is inherent in the language they were brought up to use, and is never intended to harm. It can be very difficult, not only for a pensioner who has used the word “Damn” or “Bastard” all their life, but also for a teenager whose every fifth word is f*** to suddenly stop using such words when trying to express themselves, especially if they are in an emotional state.

So, how much should we tolerate? We can have a policy of:

– 100% zero tolerance of any swear words

– a flexible approach based on each unique situation

– an approach that defines as allows mild swearing only – “Damn” but not “f***”

– an entirely permissive approach

We can also distinguish between swearing that is personal or non-personal and set a tolerance level for that. Much depends also on our ability to sympathise and empathise and also our own emotional state and ability to “take” what is often referred to as “bad language”.

The trigger point….

Usually we are all triggered by particular words and it is good to be open and honest with ourselves and others about what they are. Which of these would lead to a negative reaction in you, if someone used these words:

1. In front of you but not in any way referring to you

2. In a way that includes a reference to you, your behaviour or your organisation

– Damn

– Asshole

– Shit


– Dickhead

– Twat

– f**k

– c**t

– motherf****er

Some of these will be acceptable or unacceptable to you personally or professionally.

Also do you feel a peer group pressure to tolerate any of them more or less based on what is general deemed to be “acceptable” in your working environment?

It isn’t easy talking about words we might never want to speak nor hear.

Swearing is often linked to:

– aggression and abuse

– anger and loss of control

– lack of education and “coarseness”

– lack of acknowledgement and respect of others

But it can equally be linked to:

– a person’s learned way of speaking and sense of identity

– a way of letting of steam or dealing with pressure

– an expression of their frustration with not being heard nor acknowledged

It can be stressful to be sworn at and we may not have strategies for dealing with it. Strategies include:

– clear induction of new tenants into an agreed, signed up for set of groundrules and code of conduct

– ways to name the behaviour as unacceptable and to ask for it to cease

– having a clear and open set of acceptable and unacceptable words and phrases backed up rules

– allowing everyone to express themselves however they wish – this often leads to less swearing or even no swearing over time

– leading and easing tenants away from swearing with better language alternatives and reframing and rephrasing

– being able to quickly get to the root cause of what is causing the need to swear

– allowing a person a “one chance” and then making further intolerance very clear with stated consequences, backed up by the organisation

Swearing or “bad language”?

There is also a much wider vocabulary beyond swearing that can be used in similar ways to swearing and for similar reasons and root causes.

Language which is politically incorrect can be offensive or unacceptable to you as well. There is also the complication of a particular individual or group applying such language to themselves without finding it acceptable if another applies to to them. In Brighton I’ve heard plenty of gay people refer to themselves as “queens”.

We are in very complex territory here, a legal minefield!

Question for discussion: Is self-referring always acceptable? Can I call myself whatever I want, even if I use politically incorrect language?

Now, look at the words below and just observe what reaction they bring about in you:

– stupid
– blind as a bat
– nerd
– geek
– mental
– insane
– coloured lady
– nigger
– Jew
– disabled
– slowcoach
– hoodie
– immigrant
– an Asian gentleman
– kid
– dumb
– paranoid
– old dearie
– autistic
– nutcase

In what situations are these words acceptable or unacceptable?

How do you react to them?

Does their acceptability change in different people or situations?


About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

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