Seven Dirty Words in the Workplace

It is yet another Monday. And I hate Mondays. I tend to get the Monday “blahs” even in June when the summer brings days of sun, joy and laughter (see ). The Monday Blues got me thinking about what awaits me in the workplace later today.  Mind you, I already worked this weekend. Despite Loverboy’s ode to Fridays in which they exhort “everybodys working for the weekend,” it seems many are now working for those precious few hours where we cram in family time, errands and sleep (and maybe sneak in a cocktail or two). So, I have a few choice and profane words for Monday mornings. However, this isn’t about those words. I want to explore the dirty little words neither management or line staff are supposed to say in the workplace.


Are you familiar with George Carlin’s bit about the seven dirty words that you can’t say on television?   It was a snarky bit about the slightly hypocritical decency standards of American television and by extension, culture.  Those seven words were first listed in 1972 and have stood the morality test of time.  Although, if you want to pay for cable or satellite television, you can get your fill of those seven dirty words.   Is that why cable television is starting to outpace network television shows in terms of viewers?  I guess we are willing to put our money where our dirty mouths are at.


Mind you, there have been many recent instances in regular network television where certain dirty words (i.e. “f*$#”) have not been bleeped out either because the censors were not fast enough on the button, or it was deemed to be appropriate to the context.  On March 10, 2002, CBS aired 9/11, a documentary special highlighting the first responders during the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The documentary featured the responders cursing up a storm and specifically uttering the word f*$#.  I think we can all agree that the 9/11 context was pretty messed up and certainly merited a little extreme language. Hell, maybe even the President of the morality-police, the Parents Television Council, uttered a few choice words that morning (although I am sure that they wouldn’t let themselves be caught on film doing so).


Of course, we have also had the 2004 Superbowl’s Janet Jackson “Nipplegate” incident that caused a major uproar as parents had to explain to their small kids why she had a star on her chest. Of course, by then Bob Dole’s erectile dysfunction ads had been running for several years. Maybe parents could have explained Janet was trying to help Bob Dole. By the way, have you seen the Burger King Advertisement where a woman is biting into a BK Super Seven Incher (still not quite sure if it’s a parody or not), with the caption, “it’ll blow your mind away”.  Check out the photo below.  So, obviously you know the deal? We abhor dirty words, because we must protect the kids, but are somewhat hypocritical about the allowable contexts. All this comes to my mind as I prepare myself for the workday ahead.


There is an odd sensitivity that we have about certain words. And it is not just specific to television. There are also several words that one cannot say in the workplace.   Obviously, one cannot curse. Although, many do curse up a storm and depending on the context it is considered, if not appropriate, then at least forgivable.   In the non-profit workplace the seven dirty words you cannot say on television get a little more leeway. Hey, if you don’t get paid the salary of a Wall Street guy, apparently you can go ahead and curse away.   Plus, if you work in the HIV/AIDS field you often have to say a lot of words that would make some blush in the context of getting your job done.  So, George Carlin’s seven dirty little words are at times celebrated in the workplace. The seven dirty words I am referring to are completely different.


Let us start with the word, really a phrase, “paper trail” (or put it in writing). It is all the rage these days. There are times when we email things just to make sure we are on record and other times we go to someone’s desk and in hushed voices proceed to strategize.  Look at the noise surrounding The State department’s emails regarding Benghazi.  Surely, someone made a mistake detailing all those issues through electronic mail. Have you ever sat in a meeting and wondered if you should be taking notes? You look around and everyone’s hands are folded on the table or their laps. If so, that is probably a sign that something is being said that others should not know about.  Have you ever sent an email asking for an explanation of a particular situation to only receive back an email that instructs you to call the person? Take that as another sign. A paper trail can help or hurt depending on context, motive and agency type.   We should all be a bit cautious and learn from the NSA leak. Best solution: bullet point lists or a phone call dialed from your cell phone.


Now, what about the word “restructuring”?  If you hear that phrase, run.  If you utter that phrase be prepared to hold countless individual counseling sessions for that is one of the dirtiest words one can utter in the workplace.  It sends shivers down people’s spines and tingles the extremities.  People know what restructuring means.  Enough said.


Here is a truly dirty, bad workplace word: “micromanagement.” Everyone states they do not want to be micromanaged and that they do not need to be micromanaged. However, after about the fifth time you note to a staff member they have missed a deadline they will ask for help in prioritization. Absolutely nothing wrong in asking for help prioritizing things especially when you have a to-do list with twenty items just for one day. That is what a manager is for. But prioritization requests are one step closer to that micromanagement boundary. Does the person need such assistance every day? Does it come to the point where you help them come up with a set of tasks they do every Monday, for instance? Do you have to set a day where people take three hours to file their backlogged paperwork? Yeah, let’s think about that micromanagement concept. Is it really that bad of a thing?


While we are on the subject of micromanagement and the need to disguise it as something else, let’s talk about transparency. Many staff claim they want “transparency” in the workplace. But let’s be real, in the immortal words from A Few Good Men, many “can’t handle the truth.”  With knowledge, which is what is sometimes meant by a request for transparency, comes great responsibility. If you were to know, for instance, what the daily cash balance of your organization is (or more typically, just how little cash there is) what would you do with that knowledge? Would it help you do your job better? Would it motivate you to be more client-centered? Or would you worry and be distracted? Would you start looking for a job immediately? Is that the end goal? If you were to find out that your name was the first one out of everybody’s mouth when considering who to let go, would you be greatly comforted? What does transparency get you?


Honestly, do you really want to know? And there goes another dirty word: “honestly.”  Whenever someone starts a sentence with that word, the truth is probably far off. When I hear that word, my body has a physical reaction—generally revulsion.


You know what else I react to physically? It’s the word “teamwork”. I hear “group project” and flash back to those instances where I did the bulk of the work. Teamwork, how does that play out evenly?  Its seems to be code for one person does the bulk of the actual work, and the others take credit for minimal contributions, sometimes due to pure laziness, and sometimes due to an incapacity to actually do the required work.


Here is a bad, bad word: Virus. If you admit that your computer got a virus, you are kind of admitting you did something naughty (cruised that dubious website), or at least stupid (clicked on that link to claim your share of the stolen wealth of a Nigerian Prince). Many will even automatically believe that you downloaded porn.


Let me end with this hypothetical doosy. If someone says “honestly, I prefer to not be micromanaged, as I wrote in my email, because I believe in teamwork and transparency during this period of restructuring, and no, I didn’t download porn and cause an office-wide virus”– just grab your bag, leave the keys on the table and never look back.  That is, if the resultant brain aneurism doesn’t get you first.

What are your dirty words?


You can catch Carlin’s bit here:

PS: Taco Bell apparently considers “meat” a dirty word and now uses the word “protein”.


Here is the burger king ad:

Burger King AD

Burger King AD


7 replies »

      • Actually there are still lots of them judging from the GC Facebook page. I have used a routine or two if his in some sermons, baseball and football for instance, and lots of people told me how much they liked him, with only a few commenting on his language and subject matter in the second half of his career.


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