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.

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