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More profanity on the job? Swear by it


Casual profanity has come to the office and from an unlikely source -- women.

Few figured it would evolve this way, especially as women began to surge into the work force in the 1970s. Men would have to clean up their raunchy language, the conventional wisdom dictated, in deference to the women.

It hasn't worked that way.

Instead, women in the workplace can blister the paint with the gusto of a stevedore in a tavern. It's a transition in the American workplace that suggests that the social and cultural norms of the workplace are still largely set by men despite the legions of women who have entered the work force in the past three decades.

Women who spike their workplace talk with profanity "want to be one of the boys," says Judy Rosener, a management professor at the University of California, Irvine, and expert in women's workplace issues.

The movement of women into the previously male-dominated workplace has been so swift that many are still insecure and tend to be what Ms. Rosener calls "colluders" -- adapting the dress, actions and speech of males in the workplace.

It's insecurity, agrees Julie Newcomb Hill, president and chief executive of Costain Homes Inc. in Newport Beach, Calif. She recalls the 1970s, when women began surging into the work force -- wearing female versions of men's suits.

Now women can be feminine, she says, and as they reach executive chairs, they have enough power to impose a company culture that strongly frowns on profanity.

To be sure, some companies run by men have strictures that make the casual use of profanity a cultural sin.

"Culturally, it's not tolerated within the company," says Jeff D'Eliscu, a spokesman for Allergan Inc., maker of eye and skin-care products.

Yet on assembly floors, offices and loading docks across the land, men and women can be heard deploying R-rated terms in casual conversation.

Marty Mecca says she wasn't offended by the profanity she encountered as supervisor of the service garage at Hyundai Motor America in Fountain Valley, Calif.

"I would ignore it. It came with the job," she says.

Ms. Mecca since has moved to a new job at Hyundai -- dealer support analyst for the American unit of the Korean-based carmaker. In her new job, the profanity has largely disappeared.

Ironically, the use of casual profanity is particularly offensive in Korea, Japan and Spain, among other countries, says Sir Eldon Griffiths, director of Center for International Business at Chapman University in Orange, Calif.

Those countries tend to have a more formal culture, he observed.

The use of profanity by men and especially women generally is frowned on overseas, Mr. Griffiths said. That's not good for a company with aspirations overseas, he said, and yet American women are more conspicuous than any in the world in their use of casual profanity.

Profanity's infiltration into meeting rooms and onto shop floors is at least partly due to American movies, radio, and now on television, where gritty language can be heard on dramas such as "NYPD Blue." In live broadcasts of O. J. Simpson's legal proceedings, lawyers voiced profane terms as they read from transcripts.

Was it just a couple of generations ago that Clark Gable shocked the nation by telling Scarlett O'Hara he didn't give a damn? Some women, particularly older ones, would like to have left it at that.

And Ms. Rosener's studies at UCI elicit hope for those wanting cleaner speech in the workplace.

Language changes for the better in top management, she says. Once women begin moving into the executive offices in large numbers, she predicts a change in the American workplace.

Freed of the pressure to be "one of the boys," executive women will banish the R-rated words from the workplace, she says.

It may take a while for the change that Ms. Rosener speaks of to materialize.

Until then, the workplace is likely to be as Beverly H. Patrick described it in her recently published book "Uncivil Wars: Men, Women & Office Etiquette in the '90s."

"Long gone are the days when ladies could profess credible shock at profanity," she writes. Men curse, she says, and women can match them.

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