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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