Seven Words You Can’t Say On Your Workplace Collaboration System

“How do we feel about using profanity in these informal communications?”


We need to discuss our collaboration process.

The message from one of my co-workers showed up as a desktop notification from the collaboration application, Slack, we’re using at my new job.

If you’re not familiar with Slack (I’m not too familiar with it, either), you can find out more about the program on the company’s website. I used it at a previous assignment to share files. At this job, we’re using it mostly for messaging, as the team is spread across the state and across the country–there’s a doppelganger work group out in Los Angeles doing the same stuff we’re doing here in Philadelphia–and it keeps us from checking email and cell phones every second of the day.

I clicked on the notification to close it and then searched the message archives to see who had been swearing. I hoped against hope that it hadn’t been me.

Because I swear.

A lot.

After scanning the brief history of messages, I relaxed. For the time being, my new work team would remain unaware of my filthy mouth. It turned out that someone else had said fuck cursed.

Meanwhile, I had forgotten my password and signed in late to a virtual meeting, triggering my only transgression (so far): an exasperated, “Jesus Christ! Fiddlesticks!”

That expression doesn’t even count as a real swear in my book, not like shit sugar, piss number one, fuck fudge, cunt jerk, cocksucker jerk, motherfucker jerk, and tits, no, boobs!, wait, I mean, breasts.

So how did we feel about using profanity?

The question reminded me of a situation I’d been in before, back during my freshman year at college. I’d been assigned to the the only all-female dorm on campus with two roommates: a young woman from suburban Chicago named Nicole, who would eventually major in French, and one from New York City, named Julianna, who would major in modern dance.

Compared to these two, my ultimate area of study, English Literature, seemed positively practical.


Students who can’t go back to their dorms because their roommate is having sex there.

Anyway, on that first day (the very first day!) on campus, right there at the beginning of Freshman Orientation Week, Nicole and I opened the dorm room door to find Julianna entertaining a young man on the institutional twin bed she had been assigned.

Now, by “entertaining” I mean—well,  we didn’t see anything. They had clothes on, and each had at least one foot on the floor (I checked). Still, the sight shocked me, even though  I considered myself a sophisticated seventeen year old: I’d already lost my virginity and read The New Yorker.

Nicole and I backed out of the room and let the door close behind us. Once in the safety of the hallway, she took a deep breath, her face flushed. I stood there unable to decide whether to be embarrassed or envious.

“I think,” Nicole finally said, her voice faltering before she could finish the sentence. She gulped more air as though it gave her the courage to speak and then blurted out the rest of her words with such effort that I feared she might collapse into exhausted tears. “I think we need to have rules about men in the room!”

Back then, we needed rules about men. Today, we need rules about swearing.

I swear, as I said. My husband, who does not swear, wishes I would stop. My sister, who has no children, told me she always assumed people stop swearing when they have kids. I’ll take this opportunity to inform her that she could not be more wrong: I feel my experiences as a parent entitle me to swear a whole lot more.

After work on Friday, at a happy hour where I order a Coke Zero, conversation turns to the question posed earlier in the week: how do we feel about profanity? We talk the topic to death, an occupational hazard, and I share the story about my roommates in college. That story prompts the others to tell stories about roommates they’ve had, and we bond a bit over drinks, but never come to a resolution on the use of profanity.

Today I’m still thinking about my new work team: how we’re trying to coalesce, trying to become something more than random strangers to one another, trying to figure each other out: why I would order a Coke Zero and why someone else doesn’t like swearing. Back in college, my roommates and I never did figure it out: the following year,  Julianna moved in with a boy, Nicole stayed on in that all girls dorm, taking on the role of Resident Advisor sophomore year, and I shared a rented house off campus.

I guess I won’t swear in “these informal communications” just like I never brought a guy back to my dorm room. It’s not that I don’t think we should swear, it’s more that I don’t want anyone, even some new co-worker three thousand miles away, to think I’m an asshole a jerk.

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11 thoughts on “Seven Words You Can’t Say On Your Workplace Collaboration System

  1. Karen says:

    First: I couldn’t watch Game of Thrones last night, so no spoilers in the comments, please!

    Ok, there’s a quote I’ve been hearing a lot lately attributed to Nora Ephron (and I think she got it from her mother) about writing: “Everything is copy.”

    And that’s kind of the philosophy I’ve had writing here at Do Not Get Sick in the Sink, Please: everything is on the table and might show up on this blog, including my interactions with my gynecologist, the sales clerk at a department store, the parents of my kids’ friends, etc.

    Further, I’ve long felt compelled to publish stuff especially when the voice in my head tells me, “Maybe this topic isn’t suitable for your blog!” and delighted in giving the middle finger to my inner censor.

    I reconsidered all that as I wrote this post and considered scrapping it completely, because the people that I’m working with did not sign on to be characters on this blog, unlike my husband, who married me voluntarily and my kids who are dependent on me for food, so they can’t complain, either.

    In the end, I edited this post significantly and closed my eyes and hit “Publish.” I’m probably flattering myself to believe that my co-workers care enough to search me out on the internet, but in the off chance they happen to be weirdos looking for good places to have sex in public and find this blog, and read this particular post, I hope there is no offense.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. rossmurray1 says:

    Re your comment above: don’t overthink it.

    As for the rules: no group communication swearing; it’s not pro. One-on-one swearing, however, is at your discretion.


  3. Allie P. says:

    I missed Game of Thrones as well, so worry not, I am spoiler free, although I am guessing the characters cursed once or twice and probably someone got naked. The show has gotten so predictable now, don’t you think?

    I try not to swear though as I used to have quite the potty mouth and I worry that if I were to give voice to all the words my internal monologue may be shouting, I may never regain control over it again. Letting the words out in small doses is probably the healthier strategy.

    By the way, can you please start sending submissions to the various HR related newsletters that continue to find their way to my inbox at the office? They could use a little more story-telling.


    • Karen says:

      Regarding GoT–no, I don’t think it’s gotten predictable, and I really enjoyed the premiere (which I just watched).

      And swearing–I just reread this piece and I’m thinking it makes me sound like I think people who swear are jerks, but what I meant was that people who ignore the concerns of other people are jerks. I still argue with my husband (who does not swear) that they are just words, and curse words are just as effective to use in communication as any other, but he’s never bought into that line of thinking, the prude.


      Liked by 2 people

      • Allie P. says:

        I was kidding about GoT’s predictability. Watched the premiere today too. Did not expect that ending.

        You came across as you intended. No worries.


  4. Ally Bean says:

    Back then, we needed rules about men. Today, we need rules about swearing.

    I found myself, against my will, in an all girls dorm my freshman year, too. I’d forgotten about all the rules. Thinking back on the experience, I believe it is while living there that I began to swear in earnest. Making me the dandy collaborator that I am today.


  5. BroadBlogs says:

    Okay, so I noticed that there was no comment box on your blog about not commenting — apropos! But I just wanted to say somewhere that I actually get a lot of great material from my commenters! And sometimes I just like the energy even when the comments aren’t especially insightful. So there’s my food for thought. 🙂


    • Karen says:

      Yeah, I disabled comments on that post 🙂

      I’m all for comments. There’s a blogger I follow who tells me she gets a lot of ideas for her posts from her commenters, and I’ve made a lot of virtual friendships with commenters over the years, so I’m all in favor of them.

      Plus, they’re living proof that you’re not just screaming out into a void, so there’s that. 😉


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