When Ewan McGregor got the part of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the second round of Star Wars films, a work colleague of mine sent an email called ‘Choose the Force’ to All Users. It was a parody of the opening voiceover of McGregor’s previous big hit about Edinburgh heroin addicts, Trainspotting. I can remember one line “Choose a f***ing big light sabre”. The rest of the paragraph was of a similar tone and content and when it popped up in our Inboxes, consecutive waves of hilarity, shock and panic swept round the building.
Fortunately, in those days, you could withdraw an email from anyone who hadn’t opened it, so my colleague received a dozen messages by return of email telling her to do that. It was later explained as a ‘lack of judgment’ and after a chat with Personnel the matter was forgotten.
I was reminded of this when Peter Capaldi was announced as the new star of Dr Who and a new wave of ‘mash-ups’ combining clips of the Time Lord with Capaldi’s previous role as Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It (and feature film spin-off In The Loop) hit the internet.
Tucker is a political spin doctor, infamous for his foul language. But the point of the character’s profanity is two-fold. Firstly, his character swears for the amusement of the audience, as in the classic “Shut the f*** up or f*** the f*** off!” Apparently, the writers were allowed a given number off swearwords per episode on a sliding scale – five or six minor curses could be traded for an f-word. While several f-words were worth one c-word, but no more than one per episode.
But the second reason is as a more pointed satire on the world of politics, where characters like Malcolm Tucker use every underhand method to defeat not just their opponents, but those they work alongside who might be perceived as a threat to their position and personal ambition. Swearing becomes a tool for bullying any less forthright colleague or opponent into submission.
All language has its place, and you can make personal judgement about how much you swear with family or friends. But are there times when you can swear in the workplace and it is justified? Three possible scenarios come to mind: to break the tension; to build camaraderie; or to lessen pain. (Surveys have shown that swearing relieves the effects of physical pain. Although overuse diminishes the effect.)
Even in these situations, the individual swearer must judge the use of language that others might find offensive carefully, and weigh up his or her personal responsibility in the situation. You have to balance having respect for those listening, ponder the effects on your own personal integrity, and weigh up how accountable you are, especially with regard to your place in a work hierarchy. And conversely there are times when criticising swearing is more a sign of prudishness than genuine good taste.
But taking all this into consideration, the occasion when workplace swearing is most off-limits is when it used to bully. Going back to Malcolm Tucker, it is rare when watching The Thick of It that you don’t feel yourself cringing at his insults as well as laughing. And it is a real concern that because you are laughing at the extreme vocabulary you might become desensitised to the browbeating effect it has on individuals.
I knew a local politician famous for his colourful idioms. A mutual acquaintance praised the way he could cut visiting bigwigs down to size by his continuous use of foul language. He wasn’t insulting them, but he kept up a constant stream of four-letter-words like a battering ram. I wondered if he was doing it deliberately and if so, whether he’d lost control. I’ve seen his own colleagues – particularly women – cringing at what seemed to be needless profanity and sexual language. I once interviewed him to get copy for a promotional leaflet and it was impossible to pick out a single quote that didn’t have two or more swearwords in it.
Finally, though, I don’t want to forget that swearing can be funny, but even more so can be our vain attempts to get round it. My brother is a primary school Headteacher and he told me how a pupil was once sent to him to be reprimanded for swearing. “What did you say?” he asked the boy. “I said the R-word,” was the reply. “Which R-word?” My brother asked, puzzled. “Arse,” said the boy.