As a teenager, I decided expletives were no longer off-limits to me. While I didn’t call it this, I developed a nuanced contextual analysis to determine where and when to swear, instead of an across-the-board moratorium. There were the people and places I would never dare to swear in front of: never in church and never in front of my grandma. Then there were the places and people I shouldn’t swear in front of, but boy, what dramatic effect when I did! Sometimes a well-chosen expletive was the exclamation point I wanted, even if it got me in trouble. (Yes, I was a grandstander in school. I admit it.)
Over the years, I have mellowed, and my list of swearing venues has dwindled, but the framework of analysis has persisted. Some folks will say, “Don’t ever swear at work! You will never get promoted and people will think you are dumb.” Others hold blowing off steam makes for bonding and camaraderie at work. There are offices (and apparently cities) with a cursing culture. I hear more cursing than I used to, and sometimes it surprises me, but I am not of the mindset that if you swear, you will never “make it.” I still rebel against the moratorium and instead choose conscious evaluation of propriety based on circumstance. Here are my guidelines:
- Never swear in front of minors. They’ve joined my grandma as people exempt from my cursing. Kids pick it up too easily and don’t have appropriate judgment — there really is a time when it is too early to learn (and too hard to explain) cursing.
- Never swear in court. No matter how frustrated or deranged a case makes one, this place is sacred. Professionalism must be top-notch before the judge. That goes for the clerk and opposing counsel as well. This is one place I think keeping your cool helps you immensely. This probably includes clients, though I have had meetings where acknowledging the elephant in the room in my client’s language was a better move. Let’s say it includes clients in most circumstances and always at court.
- At work, take a cue from the boss. If my boss cuts loose with a curse now and then, my rule of thumb is to join in a bit, but always keep my usage a little less fluent and a little more discreet. If my boss does not curse, I put her in with my Grandma and say no more!
- Try not to curse at or about individuals. Inanimate objects or entities presumably don’t have feelings, but humans do. Swearing can be witty and eloquent when done right, but it is downright cruel when done wrong. See #5.
- If a swear word slips out when it shouldn’t, don’t pretend like it didn’t happen. I do an internal check: Did I express myself accurately? Do I feel all right or does it grate on me? Did I offend? If I answer yes, I come clean as soon as I can. Authenticity is the best remedy for a mistake, so I say something like, “I’m sorry I just swore. That wasn’t necessary or accurate. What I meant was…”
- Give honor to your station. It matters how people perceive the justice system. It matters how people perceive those working in it. But even if you don’t see yourself as a special cog in the wheel of this miraculous thing called justice, you can challenge yourself to a higher standard of communication. Be personally proud of the policy you make.
- Substitute words. Come up with an equally witty substitute for that favorite curse. It’s true, a choice swear word can be the perfect communication in the right instant. One of my favorite movie lines of all time contains an expletive. But often what I truly need in a seemingly-expletive-right moment is a touch of humor or perspective. Come up with a word or phrase that is just as poignant and telling (Not “fracking” — we know what they really meant! — or “frigging” —still too close to the real thing, according to my kindergartener.) Choose a substitute that is both catchy (i.e., habit-forming) and interesting. What my teen self was really captivated by was the power that certain words command — the beauty of language in all its glory. Take the challenge to find a more profound way of expressing your frustration, elation, dismay, or cantankerousness.
Now it’s your turn. Tell use your favorite “substitute” and why you use it in the comments!