Swearing To Make Your Point: A Tale Of F**k And Sh*t

Profanity is a divisive subject. Some think obscenities have no place in any polite conversation, ever; some feel, judiciously applied, profanity is the best flavour in their communication spice rack; others lob expletives like they're trying to unlock a coveted F**k-Yeah Four-Letter Words badge. It's a touchy subject, and one that's been the focus of some enjoyable debate in the past week. So let's talk about it, shall we?

Note: This post is centered around a bunch of developers arguing about cursing in presentations, but the discussion is applicable beyond those bounds, so if you aren't a developer, don't let that turn you off. Also, since this post is about profanity, you're likely to find some ahead. If you're prone to the vapours simply at the sight or discussion of profanity, you may want to bring along your smelling salts.

Image remixed from Zach Holman.

The Starting Point

GitHub developer Zach Holman presented a talk that quickly spread among the tech and startup crowd, in large part due to his fun and attractive slide deck. (His slides were so nice that he wrote up a post on slide design for non-designers, which we posted about two weeks ago.) His talk, and his slides, made use of profanity — even the dreaded f-bomb. And that's where the conversation started.

The "Swearing Is Bad" Crowd

Microsoft employee Scott Hanselman pitched the tent poles of the anti-swearing camp in his post, Profanity doesn't work, and his take is pretty simple:

I believe that having S*** and F*** in your conference slides or titles doesn't make you cool or professional, or a better coder. It makes you look crass. When is it appropriate and why is it appropriate when other things aren't?

Hanselman feels that "words that are evocative of sex and feces are in fact not appropriate", and the long and short of Hanselman's argument is that since swearing has the potential to alienate your audience, it should be avoided.

There's certainly truth to the first part. Profanity does alienate some people. If you've ever spent a few entertaining hours looking at user reviews of movies, you can find absurdly detailed analyses of how many swear words a film contains regardless of the content.

Following Hanselman's post, developer Rob Conery offered his take on the problem of swearing in presentations, titled Fucking Your Way Out:

The slide [at right] is taken from a talk by Zach Holman. It's a gorgeous slide deck and Zach shows a deft hand at communicating ideas in a very concise way. I want to make this clear again: I'm not offended at the presence of the F-bomb, I'm offended that someone with his talent takes the easy way out.

Making your point with profanity is what the general population uses as punctuation to emphasise a point. It's conversational punctual shorthand.

Conery's main point appears to be "Educated folk should not use words common among the uneducated masses" (my words, not his). Eep. He even goes so far as to call them "Walmart words" (his words), which, frankly, is more offensive than any profanity I'd heard in Holman's talk.

Between these two common anti-profanity arguments, both clearly hold some truth. So how about the flip side?

In Defence Of Profanity

Holman posted a response, called simply Swearing, and breaks down his defence of swearing in presentations to three main points:

  1. Swear words are succinctly emotional and evocative
  2. Swearing is a crafted part of his persona — one that's served him well
  3. He'd rather lose audience numbers to his profanity than audience connection (which he feels is stronger because of his voice)

Regarding his last point:

I'm less concerned about my overall reach than I am with connecting with my audience. Put another way: I'm content with losing a handful of people if that means I connect much stronger with everyone else.

Your reputation is your brand. Just like a company, your brand can be deeply impacted by a small group of passionate followers. I've been seeing this for years- the same avatars retweet me, the same names show up in discussions about me, the same sites help promote my projects. I'm fortunate and humbled to have these people at my back.

I wouldn't have nearly as many of them if I played it safe. I enjoy keeping an edge, and they respect that. Someone else could construct a beige persona and cultivate a following, but that would be less effective for me because I'm not nearly as good at fitting that personality.

Holman isn't the only speaker whose persona has a little profanity in its grout. David Heinemeier Hansson, creator of the popular open-source web framework Ruby on Rails and co-founder of web company 37Signals, is a popular speaker who's big on profanity. Best-selling author, passionate speaker, and social media dude Gary Vaynerchuk is perhaps the poster boy of profanity in communication. You can watch him speak in the video below.

Apart from an individual's personal proclivity, it's also worth noting that profanity is persuasive. One 2006 study found that swearing at the start or end of a persuasive speech can influence the audience:

To see whether swearing can help change attitudes, Scherer and Sagarin (2006) divided 88 participants into three groups to watch one of three slightly different speeches. The only difference between the speeches was that one contained a mild swear word at the start:

"…lowering of tuition is not only a great idea, but damn it, also the most reasonable one for all parties involved."

The second speech contained the 'damn it' at the end and the third had neither. (Oz editor note: yes, Americans think "damn" is a swearword.)

When participants' attitudes were measured, they were most influenced by the speeches with the mild obscenity included, either at the beginning or the end.

For some, there are miles of distinction between "damn" and "fuck". For others, not so much.

My Perspective

Now to come clean: In my personal life, I swear casually and often. Profanity rarely carries the negative connotation for me that it does for some (as with all things, context is everything), and I agree with Holman when he says:

The emotions [profanities] raise can't be reached as succinctly with other tools. They're powerful. When chosen with deliberate consideration, they aren't a cop-out; they're the strongest way to connect with a particular audience.

It's worth noting that we rarely use profanity on Lifehacker. Offending people doesn't have much to do with that (though any time we've used profanity, you can believe I hear about it from disgruntled readers), but unlike, say, a deck of slides, where word economy is at a premium, we have plenty of space to make our point, and profanity doesn't make a lot of sense for the Lifehacker brand.

In conversation with friends, coworkers — even my boss — I un-self-consciously swear all the time. It's a very natural part of the way I communicate. Sometimes I use big words. Sometimes I use bad words. When applied to a specific audience, I'd be shocked to learn that anyone was turned off or offended by my profanity.

Whether you're pro- or anti-swearing, obviously context is the most important thing. Unless you're still rebelling against your parents or are choosing to swear for an actually considered reason, there's no point in dropping profanity at the expense of your message.

How About You?

The main takeaway here, as with all things, is "it depends". Using profanity in your communication is a choice, and since it is such a polarising subject, it's something you want to take a considered approach to. (Oh, and one other useful pro-swearing tidbit: Profanity relieves pain.)

So what's your take? Do you swear with abandon? Reserve your profanity for the right audience? Keep profanity locked in a safe at all times? Share your perspective in the comments.


Comments

    Myself, I try to not swear when I'm talking to someone I've never met or don't know that well. After you get to know them a bit you can decide whether it's appropriate or not. This applies doubly for meeting women. What I don't like is seeing children using it and in particular swearing at adults. Boguns on the other hand generally use it as a second language and there's nothing nicer than walking your mum to the shops and hearing the woeful language illiteracy of a couple of Bogans in light conversation right next to you! I'm inclined to believe that it brings humanity down a level when we can't manage a conversation without it, mind you I'm no angel either!

    I use swear words where think it serves a purpose but its very unprofessional to use them articles and such (i made a comment a while back when a LH contributor had swear words in his article, i found it very crass.

    I don't swear around children (since they don't know how to use them and would use them inappropriately once they learn it). I also dislike swearing with reckless abandon, you use it so much it loses its punch, for example shit, i don't consider it a swear word because its so common (but still unprofessional to use it in certain contexts).

    My most common usage is in WTF (often when coworker writes some really shitty code).

    While the guys slides looks nice, the swearing in it turned me away. He could have easily said "documentation is extremely important" and it would have conveyed the same weight without the unprofessionalism.

      I'll have to disagree with you there.
      As was mentioned multiple times, swearing coneys emotion. Personally, when I read "documentation is extremely important", it seems pretty ordinary; it doesn't stand out. When I read "documentation is fucking important", it really stands out, because the word 'fucking', while not used in anger, coneys that emotion of 'sit up and take notice', it stands out from the other points. I think moderation is key here. If you throw it around throughout the presentation/conversation/whatever, it does lose its meaning, but when used as a highlighting tool of such, it works well.

        Agree with Liam.. whilst I don't think people should go around swearing with reckless abandon, the sentence "documentation is fucking important" has infinitely more urgency and is thus infinitely more effective than "documentation is extremely important"

    I think swearing is like font choice. Papyrus and Comic Sans are two fonts you'd normally avoid like the plague (right? RIGHT!) but when used by someone who knows what they're doing (such someone doing a satirical piece) then it's useful and powerful.

    As Jaezass pointed out, I never swear in front of people I know. I may come close with some "Shhiiiohgod did they know?"s but when it adds something to the piece, I use it.

      Wow, this is probably the best way I've seen this put, well done and agree 100%

    “documentation is extremely important” and it would have conveyed the same weight without the unprofessionalism.

    Bullshit.

    Everything is extremely important. I get mail that is extremely important, so much so I ignore it, because it's usually not. It's usually spam and advertising and bills, none of which are extremely important in the big scheme of things.

    That's the problem. Advertisers and the media have taken words which meant something was important, and they're now so common we ignore their impact. (There was an excellent article on the ABC about this... I'll find it later)

    That's why swearing has more impact. Especially if someone does it right.

    Swearing in front of friends and coworkers in the office is one thing. Doing it in informal meetings with them is another and it seems now it's cool to do it in front of a tech savvy gen Y crowd at a presentation/conference for them.
    Work for corporate Australia and try it in, say, a tender response and see how far it gets you (hint - about a metre past the front door...looking outwards).
    PS - it's not emotive, it's shock value that makes you stand up and take notice - the more unexpected the place, the more shock, the more impact.

    Swearing is partly an "in-group" thing, a way of saying "society doesn't like these words, but we're close enough to make our own rules"
    It's one of the reasons blokes at the pub swear so much, and why many business groups swear more than they would in other company.

    To me, though, the shame is that it's become so devalued in common speech. Saying damn or bloody or shit will only raise eyebrows in the most restricted company, and hearing fuck in the street is so common that it hardly scares the horses any more.

    And that's a shame. I've witnessed the sadly laughable scene of a bloke repeating "fuck'n, fuck'n, FUCK'n" etc. as an adjective because he really wanted to emphasis a point, and just using the word he used in every sentence (usually more than once) just wasn't cutting it!

    I'm amused that American comedians with routines full of fucks get pilloried for saying nigger. At least there are still SOME taboos left!

    I don't like hearing it form my Girls (17 and 20) as it is used frequently and for little provocation. They didn't get it from me. I swear, but I keep it for when there is a major catalyst. Using it in everyday language just reduces the impact.

    As the author of the referenced article - your assertion that I'm being elitest is ... well "fucked". How you can screw your petty little post together is your business - don't pull my post apart to make a point that it's clearly not making.

    Which was: that "FUCK" has no meaning at all anymore. It is, literally, a punctual NOISE. It has nothing to do with "uneducated masses" - it has everything to do with conveying a point in written terms rather than aural.

    «I’m not offended at the presence of the F-bomb, I’m offended that someone with his talent takes the easy way out.»

    I sympathise with this take on it. If not offended, then disappointed. The "extremely important" option offered above doesn't cut it for all the reasons already mentioned, but a creative mind *should* be able to find a way to use language and visual design to make the audience sit up and take notice without resorting to what's ultimately a commonplace and not all that interesting. After all, the more acceptable swearing is to your team or audience, the less real effect it will have in a presentation†, and if swearing is unacceptable to your audience, well you've just shot yourself in the foot. (Fuck)

    I don't agree, however, that this has anything to do with education (even if Conery did in fact make that point – I haven't read his full response). Highly educated people can be just as lazy and unimaginative with their spoken and written language as those with a lower level of formal education. Business jargon and weasel words can be just as offensive to the ear as swearing.

    †It's clear, though, that what the slide set author is after is not so much effect as connection. And at least according to his assessment, what he's doing works for him.

    I swear, I love to swear. I also love cake too but I don't eat that all of the time. It's very much the seasoning of a conversation. Not shying away from its use and knowing when not to use it is incredibly important on its impact.

    I can't speak for the presentation as I did not see it. But if there were fifteen slides and only used twice? I'd be find with it. Any more though and I'd question if the presenter has a good grip on English as one of the basic rules in talks is to vary your words. Continually swearing would honestly just become eye rolling to me.

    1 Peter 1:15-16 (King James Version)
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    1 Peter 1:15-16

    King James Version (KJV)

    15But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation;

    16Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.

    It's "37signals" buddy. You -will- piss them off getting it wrong!

    @Ron I don't swear because of my religious beliefs, but I don't expect nonChristians to live up to Christian standards- why would they?

    I prefer not to be around swearing, because it adds the words to my 'recently heard words' list which means it is more likely that I am tempted to use/think these words myself, something I don't want to do. However, I recognise that I shouldn't inflict my morality on everyone else, because morality isn't what matters. However I do *prefer* not to be around swearing.

    'luckily' for me I'm also a woman- so men don't swear as often around me. (doesn't stop the women though!)

    PS- Ephesians 4:9 is what I would reference, rather than 1 Peter 1.
    Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

    As Adam mentioned, context is the high and mighty ruler of swearing and how prolifically it can exist. I try not to use swear words outside of comedic attempts and to emphasise a point to people who do react to swearing. To that effect I do swear, because in those situations not swearing doesn't benefit me in any way.

    For instance, while commenting on a tech blog, I don't really NEED to say 'Absolutely fucking brilliant. Top effort' or anything of the like, but I could. It wouldn't make a whole lot of difference. However, if I were talking to a cluster of 13-year olds, or speaking for a motivational rally of some sort, throwing in a few swear words here or there might help sway my audience, or give some impact. Again, the 13-year olds might be very well-mannered and the motivational rally might be for a placid group of people. People react to swear words in a number of different ways, and so I cant agree with Dee's statement that it works solely on impact value.

    To those who say that it is completely unacceptable, I am curious if you are against expletives entirely, or just ones that can convey a crude meaning, and why. So far in the comments all I've read is 'it makes the speaker look stupid and uneducated', which doesn't really count without reasoning.

    First of all I didn't check out the older documentation you linked to.
    Second of all, there is only one appropriate time to swear and that's at levels of high emotion and stress. OK two times, the second time being when quoting someone in context.
    Documentation is F-ing important is appropriate. It highlights people's failure to do documentation correctly time and time again.

    I hate that as a female, I'm specifically told not to swear because it makes me look tacky or it's unlady-like. What about men? no one tells them it's homo to swear or that they are tacky! It drives me nuts. I'd rather people just say they find my swearing inappropriate for the situation/context and not say it's inappropriate because of my gender. When saying 'women shouldn't swear' in such broad terms, it subconsciously says to a lot of people (men and women!) that it is unacceptable for women to have such strong or vulgar emotions and especially to express them to others. What crap, might as well tell men they can't cry or be sad.. seriously.

    I swear to evoke emotion and in circumstances when I'm around people I know and don't feel the need to censor myself. Yes, sometimes it slips out at inappropriate times, but I apologise for it. I also do not like to swear around children because they don't know in what contexts it is and isn't appropriate. However, I don't have children, few of my friends do, so sometimes it slips out when I don't notice there's children around.

    In a sense I also thing we need these words to convey just HOW angry or upset or crazy we're feeling. The problem is, like someone else mentioned, when it makes up every other word and you loose all meaning to it.

    When I hear people swear, it seems to me that they using the swearing to emphasize something because they do not know any other way to express it to get the same effect. That could be because they lack the vocabulary skills, intelligence or decorum (or all of the above) to convey the meaning of what they are trying to communicate.
    I also notice that they generally seem to be the kind of people who like to wear thongs, have tattoos, and complain about not having the right to smoke in restaurants. In comparison, very few of my friends swear. Maybe because we have nothing worth swearing about?

    I guess what I am saying is that there are two camps here. There are those of us for whom "Documentation is extremely important!" means exactly that - "Documentation is extremely important!". Then there are those for whom it somehow means something less than that, unless it has an expletive inserted.

    The danger of swearing is overuse. I rarely swear. Not because I have something specifically against it but because for me the point of it is to show something extreme, and if over-used it loses that impact.

    When I do swear, the people around me stop and _listen_ because they know it's unusual and that means something noteworthy is being shared.

    The "Documentation is fucking important" slide has far, far more impact than the "extremely" variation. But it wouldn't if every other slide said fuck or damn or shit or whatever else. It works because it is, to some degree, shocking--if it's not shocking any more, the whole impact of its use is gone and you might as well have gone with 'extremely'.

    Fucking nice article :)

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