Be Courteous When You Curse

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By Laurie Schloff

Cursing is controversial. Some believe that people who utter four-letter words are immoral, others call them crude, and still others view those who have a foul mouth as uncivilized and annoying. The town of Middleboro, Massachusetts was fed up with the spate of teen cursing on downtown streets and passed an ordinance that fines public cursers 20 dollars for each “bad word” they say in public.

On the opposite end of the cursing controversy, linguistic libertarians believe words are neither bad nor good. They believe free speech, including the right to verbalize rudeness, is guaranteed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and that the only bad words are the ones that threaten to cause physical harm to listeners (yelling bomb on board, for example).

No matter where you stand on swearing, communication specialists recommend that sensitivity to others is the key factor to consider if you have the urge to say anything stronger than “darn” or “shucks.” Here are three things to consider before you curse in public:

  1. Know who’s listening to you. Cursing serves as a verbal expression of anger, frustration, or disappointment, but your issues are not everyone’s business. Particularly, if you’re on the phone call with a friend or a client, think before you use an expletive. The salesperson who instinctively blurts out the “s-word” when she breaks a fingernail during a call with prospective customer can cost herself more than the price of a manicure.
  2. Err on the conservative side at work. All things considered, even if everyone’s “doing it,” it’s better to be called a prude than to prove yourself profane or just at a loss for more descriptive words. If you are focused on career growth, your linguistic flexibility in forming ideas, not expletives, will be a major factor. If you need a thesaurus, by all means, get one … and learn new ways of expressing yourself in a professional setting so that others don’t worry about whether you’d be an appropriate candidate for a promotion (or, these days, even for keeping your job!).
  3. Save it for later. If you truly must let loose with your cussing, consider waiting until later, when you’re surrounded by your buddies, to vent. At other times, when you’re in public, restrain yourself. There are always gentler, kinder words you can use, so adjust your vocabulary accordingly when you’re in mixed company.

Since swearing can be a well-honed habit, it will help if you find alternatives. Squeeze your fingers together, make a fist, or tighten your toes when you feel a curse coming on. If you must mouth off, have a few milquetoast alternatives ready such as darn, shoot, rats or fudge. Or be creative and develop your own customized curse word—one busy bartender says hockey puck to let off steam.

The folks in Middleboro, Massachusetts may be onto something. They know that exposure to excessive cursing can offend, and as a wise professor of speech once said, “Freedom of speech is not always free.”

Laurie Schloff is a Senior Coaching Partner with Brookline, Massachusetts-based The Speech Improvement Company. Visit her online at

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