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Women Who Curse Like Sailors

Vivia Chen

October 10, 2012

Screwyou2by_qingwa_FotoliaDear Careerist:

A senior woman lawyer at my office often uses four-letter words. She is getting “called out” on this. I find it odd since I work with men who curse all the time.

Do you think swearing is a sign of power, and that women should use the F-word more often? Or is there a double standard about this?

I am confused.


Dear Confused,

So glad you asked—I love the topic. Personally, I find cursing rather cathartic, especially if I'm having a bad day. Much cheaper and faster than therapy. And there's nothing like dropping an expletive or two to let people know exactly where you stand.

Sorry to say, though, research shows that there's a price to be paid for swearing on the job. In a survey by CareerBuilder of over 2,000 hiring managers and 3,800 workers in a wide sector of industries, this is the finding:

Employees who make frequent contributions to the swear jar may lose more than loose change; they may lose out on a promotion. Sixty-four percent of employers said that they'd think less of an employee who repeatedly uses curse words, and 57 percent said they'd be less likely to promote someone who swears in the office.

The employers in the survey felt that swearing employees (male and female) were lacking in professionalism, judgment, maturity, and the like. That's the official line about cursing—which probably fits with your mom's warnings on the subject.

Of course, you probably know that mom's advice doesn't always work when you're trying to get ahead in the legal profession—particularly if you are female. So can/should women lawyers curse at the office? For the answer, I called Drinker Biddle partner Mercedes Meyer, who's pretty outspoken on a range of issues.

Mercedes_Meyer_DBR_By_Diego_Radzinschi-LEGAL TIMES"I do it all the time. It’s an expression of passion that’s coming out of me," says Meyer (at left) about deploying expletives. "I’m loud and comical. . . . I also get a lot of respect, and people do listen to me. If you don’t know me, you might think I’m crude."

In a presentation on management, Meyer brought in manure to make a point. "I said, 'This is pile of shit.' I had people’s attention immediately," says Meyer. "You can use it for dramatic effect or humor."

But Meyer also admits that she's sometimes criticized for her tactics—especially by other women. "I've had women who have said to me, 'It’s sad that you have to curse to make a point,' and 'You should clean up your language.' " She adds, "You need to be aware when it's not going to go over well."

She warns that women have to be mindful of the audience. She says she wouldn't curse at business functions in Japan, nor in certain parts of the United States: "I used to go to Texas, and it’s a tighter line there. Women have to have perfect hair and makeup."

Still, Meyer believes that sprinkling her language with lots of salt has served her well, allowing her to stand out in a crowd. But what works for her might not work for other women, unless using four-letter words comes naturally, she says. "I think you have to be true to yourself. If it's part of your personality to curse, and it's part of your brand, it's fine." She adds, "I like being the wacky patent chick. "

So here's my takeaway: If four-letter words just roll off your tongue, go for it. And if people still have problems with your style, you can tell them where to stick it.

Related post: She Bites.

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I always thought people who swear often are too stupid to find bigger words! Sure, it lets off steam but it's like 'pissing in public'....I don't want to see or hear it!

I can see how Mercedes Mayer, "loud and comical" and obviously self-confident, would pull it off a lot better than I would - and I'm a guy. Certainly, the Comment about a foul-mouthed woman who also bad-mouths behind people's backs illustrates my point - it depends on who you are, and how graceful you can be.
Still, it's impossible to know in advance who's going to be extra religious, extra sexist, or even extra ladylike/offended.

And nobody yet mentioned the risk of a sexual harassment suit by one who takes too personally or too literally an expression containing the F-bomb (sexually "hostile environment").

Whether business or otherwise, I've cut my cursing waaay back. When you don't swear very often, people sit up and pay attention when you do.

First, I must give kudos to Angie Robinson for her spot on comment! Thank you and I most agree. I, too will ask those clarification questions in a meeting. In the beginning of my career I would turn that crimson shade of red only to realize--no else knows what the Speaker is talking about either! Now I ask away.

To touch on the women vs. me issue, yes, I do think women are judged more on the harshness of their language.

As for me, I do tend to drop those bad words from time to time--probably more than my other female counterparts. I am from NJ and now reside down South. My current office manager has (kindly and I mean that) asked me to tone it down and I respect that and realize that it should be either in my own space not for everyone to hear. Not because it is horrible or lacks education, etc., etc. but one does not want to make others uncomfortable, get fired, (state reason here) for the sake of a little curse word.

Cursing is pretty common in my office. But you do still have to be careful because some people are more sensitive than others...and I found out the hard way (because I am female - it would have been ok coming from an older male). The double standard is alive and well. I don't think any less of someone for cursing, unless that is their sole method of communication (which it generally isn't).

Roxanne got it exactly right. effing off just for the sake of effing off in communication is a lack of command of the language.

I would emphasize the caution about being aware of your audience. In the same Biglaw firm, I encountered partners with very different levels of tolerance for expletives. If you're an associate, be certain you know how delicate a partner's ears are before letting F bombs or even less salty expressions fly.

I suspect I would have lost the support of a male
partner who proved to be a lifelong ally if I'd used my sailor vocabulary in front of him.

Cursing depends on the context and whether it is done in a playful, joking manner (with everyone in on the joke) or as a direct, hostile attack on the person.

I had a female boss who cursed like a truck driver, was disrespectful to everyone (including her bosses behind their backs - wish I could have caught that on tape!), and enjoyed using foul language to intimidate those who reported to her. She reminded us of a drill sergeant screaming in our faces.

Our company was taken over and new management was delusional - they actually wanted to promote an atmosphere of "mutual cooperation and respect" and encouraged 360-degree evaluations (which, if you don't know, is where even the boss gets evaluated by subordinates as well as their bosses - yeah, right - we can expect a lot of honest feedback - LOL!)

We had a meeting and she started off by saying we needed new ideas for doing things more efficiently. One of the guys (an amazing person who had been with the company for many years and just knew everything about the business) gave his idea and she told him he was F***ing stupid, in front of a conference room FULL of people, both managers and administrators. We were used to her language, but this was stunningly ignorant and no one said a single word for the rest of the meeting unless asked a question.

She developed such a reputation over the years that no one (even outside of the company) wanted to work with her unless she paid them LOTS of money. The company changed hands again and she was not kept on (although I'm sure she got a generous severance package.)

The F-word in a business setting is low-class.

Very interesting topic. Much to say, much to consider including workplace norms versus hostile environment, type of words used and in what context, etc. The thing with cursing is that you have to possess the ability to refrain from it when necessary, that's the difference. Curse for emphasis or when comfortable or appropriate, and when it is not likely to offend, but if you can't go into a meeting or interview or presentation and pull back, then it's a problem. This goes for men and women.

I agree with Mercedes Meyer on the importance of being yourself, with proper regard to the culture in which you are working. I am also in Texas from time to time and adjust accordingly. New York is a less mannered culture, though I find it very civilized most of the time.

Women for whom 'male' communication styles come naturally tend to advance more easily, it appears, but it is a mistake to adopt an unnatural style. It is a playing field on which women cannot ultimately succeed.

I swear to express myself, but I also adopted an uncomfortably aggressive style early in my career, thinking it necessary. Now I do not, in general. I ask questions in meetings when I don't know what someone is talking about. Very often, no-one else does either, but they are silenced by male ego and fear of appearing ignorant.

Experience is an obvious advantage in that, of course. I am more confident that if I don't understand something, neither do most of the other people in the room.

Clients can be concerned when they don't see the aggressive omniscient attitude they are used to. It is my belief, however, that women will never achieve real equality in the profession until they educate clients and colleagues on the value of a different approach, and it is up to senior women to make their contribution to that effort.

Being yourself when you speak allows you to concentrate fully on what it is you are saying.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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