Should I wash my mouth out with soap?

by Karrie Kohlhaas on June 28, 2010

in Authenticity,Boundaries,Cultivate,Cultural Commentary,Manage,Networking,Presentation,Shake It Up!

boy getting mouth washed out with soap

Too much cussin' at the lemonade stand.

I have a friend whose wife has been urging him to cease swearing, especially in business situations. According to her, swearing only creates “throw-away sentences.”

This got me thinking; do I swear too much?

In client sessions I can get excited and a four-letter word may get tossed into the mix. Like a few candied pecans on top of a really healthy salad, I feel they add flavor, texture and they are naturally occurring. I don’t drench the conversation in high fructose sensationalism syrup (it’s in everything nowadays) but I do value being my authentic self and that means I swear, on occasion.

For most entrepreneurs, a major drive to work for oneself is to be completely free of inhibiting factors like timecards, dress codes, asking for time off, and rules / meetings / memos outlining what you can and can’t say. We make our own salads and put whatever we want in them, damn it.

What do you think about cussing in your business?
Do you refuse to censor yourself since you are the boss? Or do you think that four-letter words make you a bleeping wo/man of “throw away sentences” and cause your listeners to respect you a tad less–maybe even cost you business? I’d like to either start a brawl or get a consensus on this, so please, make your comments below, expletives and all.

© 2010, Karrie Kohlhaas. All rights reserved.

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{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

Bridgette Boudreau June 28, 2010 at 12:50 pm

I love candied fuckin’ pecans.


Leif Tellmann June 28, 2010 at 12:53 pm

Wow, Karrie. I must say your post gets me a little excited. It’s like “Really? She’s really putting this out there for all to see?” Could I do that? As a therapist, I’m pretty conscious about the language I use, so I tend to not swear much, unless I’m specifically joining with a client in language they are using. But what I think is so exciting for me about your post is bigger than swearing. It’s really more about being who you are in your business. It’s about authenticity. Dare I say it’s about coming out? Yes, I do. I do dare to say that. And I dare to come out. Here here!


Len Davis June 28, 2010 at 1:40 pm

A Huevo! (spanish for fuck yeah, though directly translated as ‘to the egg’) What a lovely post. I am someone who swears liberally and wishes the f bombs flowed a little less freely off my tongue even outside of work. Gauging what’s appropriate to and not to say goes way beyond profanity to keeping a lid on the many things passing through my mind that may be on point (relevant overall but a little too stream of consciousness riffing on the topic) for the matter at hand and best kept inside my dome. And watching my broccoli grow and the hummingbirds on my clematis outside my home studio right now is fuckin’ fresh and makes being self employed totally worth it. Nice topic.


Katrina Morgan June 28, 2010 at 2:14 pm

Great question. As a known “sailor” in other aspects of my life, I tend to be very conservative in word choice at work. (Same with clothing. Hmmm.) I have a name for cussing in professional settings; ‘Workplace Tourette’s.” I have four primary reasons NOT to curse at work: 1.) As a woman in the construction business, cussing does not make me ‘one of the boys’…it makes me a ‘hysterical woman.’ 2.) I want my cuss words to remain potent, so that when I really need them, I’ve got them in my back pocket. If I am perceived as someone who never loses her cool, and I pull out an F-bomb in a really critical moment…it’s because I Really. Fucking. Mean. It. 3.) It takes more creativity to construct sentences without cussing. and 4.) I try hard to promote a peaceful tone in all interactions…and I find that some people get a tiny electrical shock of tension in their face when someone cusses. Maybe it’s because their Dad was mean, or they are religious. I have no idea…so I’d rather err to the side of calm and cool.


Bridget Perez June 28, 2010 at 2:52 pm

I have to ask myself, would I want to work with a client who is turned off by an occasional cuss word? Hell no!


b June 28, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Haha, great post ! Unlike during social events, I let the client set the tone for the conversation. Once s/he lets an f-bomb drop, I’m free to lower my guard. If they’re still stuck on “darn it” and “oh dear”, you can bet I’ll hold my tongue just out of respect for their use of language.



Karrie Kohlhaas June 28, 2010 at 4:45 pm

Bridgette, I know what you’re getting for Christmas.

Leif, yes, it’s about coming out and being who you are in your business. (You watched the SHINE trailer, right?)

Len, thanks for making this subject bilingual. Good point on the stream of consciousness over-sharing. People don’t need to know EVERYTHING we are thinking just a few well chosen huevos.

Kat, loved how you broke it all down. “Workplace Tourette’s”–nice. So true that swearing doesn’t necessarily earn you respect with the boys. And I think you are right on that you want expletives to hold their potency. Who wants an impotent expletive? Laughed out loud at the “tiny electrical shock” bit. You need to do some stand-up girl.

Bridget, sounds like this could be a client filter for you.

Loving these comments. Fun to hear the range of thoughts on this topic.


Karrie Kohlhaas June 28, 2010 at 4:53 pm

Billimarie, true, it’s definitely good to know your audience. Authenticity doesn’t mean trying to get a rise out of people–it’s about not only expressing yourself but also connecting in a real way with the other person. There are times when what feels true for me is to tone it down a bit. I think Kat’s comment that it takes more creativity to talk without cussing is right on. But that probably won’t stop me in the heat of a conversation from letting the pecans out.

Who else has an opinion on this?


melody biringer June 28, 2010 at 11:51 pm

yeah i tend to mirror the situation. you know the whole i was brought up to be respectful and swearing is not respectful. wtf is up with that?


Therese Skelly June 29, 2010 at 8:42 am

Wow Karrie, what a great post!

When I was in my Toastmaster’s club I tended to get buzzed for saying that things “sucked” yet it never left my vocabulary because something when things suck, they just suck and there is no better word for that!

I have pulled back a bit and whenever a client swears and says, “Oops….sorry.” I always say, “No worries, I love sassy women who swear.” That breaks the ice and then we have this secret bond that we too are chicks who swear. Very cool and very relationship building.

Keep up the fun posts!


Lara Feltin June 29, 2010 at 11:07 am

I prefer to err on the side of radical transparency in both my professional and my personal lives and *between* my professional and personal lives – keeping track of all those boundaries and layers of propriety is too much work! I’d rather apply that energy towards creating something.

The tagline of my business is “business networking that doesn’t suck.” In 2005, I sat down with my uncle – the wise seasoned business man – to share our idea for Biznik. He thought the idea was good but said, “you have to lose the word ‘suck’ – it’s not professional.” We decided to keep the word ‘suck’ and it’s become an excellent filter that keeps the community free of the people who take offense and simply don’t ‘get’ it.


Karrie Kohlhaas June 29, 2010 at 11:44 am

Well, mirroring is a basic survival mechanism. All animals do it. Nothing wrong with that. I guess the question is, do you stifle yourself? Do you not allow yourself to be real in your business as you would in your life?

It is funny to me how there are so many ways of swearing without swearing…wtf, “effing”, a-hole, f bomb, that sort of thing. It gets the point across without sounding so harsh. I don’t really think swearing is pretty and I try not to do it. But there are times when it feels like it helps me make a strong point.


Karrie Kohlhaas June 29, 2010 at 12:23 pm

Therese and Lara, sounds like you both know the value of a good adjective! I used to think that “suck” was too vulgar, but I’ve come to the point in my life where I have seen a lot of things that just don’t cut the mustard and not only that but sometimes they make the mustard taste very bad. Suck is a good word for that.

Therese, I love how you give permission to women to redefine things and be their sassy selves. Lara, you’ve built an alternative to traditional business networking that definitely does not suck and I am totally behind you in just saying it like it is. People who want boring networking can find it elsewhere.

Thanks for your comments! Anyone else have a take on this subject? I am open to hearing all points of view, so please, jump in!


Matt Lawrence June 29, 2010 at 12:50 pm

I think Melody is on to it. The stranglehold on swearing while I was growing up only made it all the more fun to do later. Like sugar cereal and tattoos, swearing just became another vice to explore. Over the years, my taste buds have developed. I’m not crazy about sugar cereal, but I’ve got lots of tattoos, and I take every opportune, and *inopportune moment to swear. So, when my three year old dropped what I thought was the f bomb while trying to unzip an unruly zipper, I did not scold, I empathized.


Karrie Kohlhaas June 29, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Right, the sugar cereal effect: an insatiable urge to rebel. I wonder how you will feel when your daughter is a little lady, running her own downtown boutique or dance studio. While visiting her cute little shop, she drops the f bomb with customers in the space. Will it still be empathy you feel or will you tell her she should be more professional?


Matt Lawrence June 29, 2010 at 1:23 pm

I lady’s gotta do what a lady’s gotta do. But timing is everything…


Giyen June 29, 2010 at 9:31 pm

Hey Karrie,
Matt sent me over here because he constantly tells me how “fucking awesome” you are. No seriously, he does.

Sadly, I have to say that on the whole I will take Mary’s side one this one. I tell my daughter that the use of expletives is just sign of someone who doesn’t have a robust enough vocabulary to use more imaginative words. Yes, I really do say that. I can’t stop myself. It’s embarrassing.

That said, I don’t exactly prescribe to my own advice – dropping the Fbomb or any other 4 letter words in a thoughtfully crafted story can show the humor or severity of a situation. As long as expletives are used to punctuate rather than litter a conversation, I think it’s appropriate.

And if it’s not well received, well F-them. : )


Karrie Kohlhaas June 29, 2010 at 9:46 pm

“Punctuate rather than litter” yes, that feels right on to me. I am not a rampant swearer, but as you said, sometimes thoughtful usage can add humor and show just how strongly you feel about something. There are times when I just have to shock a client into a realization that they wouldn’t actually hear if I didn’t amp it up a few on the swear-o-meter. Thanks for hopping over to my blog. Yours is awesome. I just read about your Pie Anxiety and left a sassy comment. I have a feeling we’ll be commenting on each others blogs a lot more in the future. You give good blog.


Rachel Whalley June 30, 2010 at 4:55 pm

My hubby and I get very divided about this. He’s much more “appropriate” than I am.

I must admit I agree with Therese: I am a, and I love, sassy women who swear.

I also agree with Lara in the idea that my (business) personality will totally resonate with some and probably repel others. And thank god for that!

Studies do show that the most important quality in successful therapy is the relationship between healer and client. And the least successful work is when the therapist feels too distant.

So when my client loses a customer, I say, “that sucks!” Or when we’re talking about holding strong boundaries, I very well may drop an F-bomb if it feels like the power of the word will contribute to the moment.

And yeah, in my blog, I swear hella good at times. Then it’s easy to know if you’re with me. :)


Karrie Kohlhaas June 30, 2010 at 5:02 pm

So for you, Rachel, swearing is about more than authenticity and making a point but it’s also about validating your clients through your expletives. Very interesting. I hadn’t thought of swearing as an element of the healing arts. Thank you for expanding my mind and giving all of us yet one more way to justify our cursing to the curse-less among us.


Banu Sekendur June 30, 2010 at 5:37 pm

As an organizer I go into people’s homes, offices, messy closets and basically get intimate with them pretty quickly. It’s also in my nature. I find that when I drop a four letter word here and there, it makes me more human and accessible in my clients’ eyes. I assume that it also makes them feel less embarrassed about their “mess” and having to expose it to a stranger who they found through a friend’s referral.

This may sound funny but I like people who swear (moderately). My bias is that they tend to be less uptight and more transparent (thus, gutsy).

Cuss words are in the language for a reason and they are very effective in highlighting the point we’re trying to make. Having said that, I do use discretion- I am not stupid! :)


Karrie Kohlhaas June 30, 2010 at 5:55 pm

Banu, thanks for more ammo. on the validating-the-client-via-swearing side of the court. You swear so they feel less self conscious. Hmm, this is getting good!


Allison Faye Nelson June 30, 2010 at 5:44 pm

I usually get to know my clients a bit before expanding into my full vocabulary, including not only potentially offensive words, but the big, lesser known ones and the ones that could create a spiritual rift. I like to create a common ground for the most possible expression in my working interactions, and if that includes some swearing, chances are we’re going to have a bit more fun.

If it doesn’t, I’ll get creative (as Katrina mentioned), which is a good challenge. Then my energy has to work in a different way to pull the enthusiasm for freedom out of someone. ‘Cuz that’s what a lot of my work is. There’s a lot of talking and unlocking, so I often actually end up getting my clients to swear first (and sometimes get cute and sheepish and apologize). Then we take it to the next level.

Oh. And I totally don’t care if other people swear. There are way worse things to be doing with words in my opinion, like insulting someone, turning them back sharply at yourself, or making a bad reality worse.

Thank you for such a thoughtful question, Karrie! You are effing amazing and I’m so lucky to know you and have had your brilliant light shine on my business. Love to ya. :)


Karrie Kohlhaas June 30, 2010 at 6:26 pm

Spiritual rift? Lesser known ones! Wow, I need to learn this seedy underworld language you have access to. Excellent examples of worse things you can do with language. And yes, you, Allison, could “pull enthusiasm for freedom” out of an imprisoned, dying snail.


Rachel Whalley June 30, 2010 at 6:21 pm

For women, especially, Karrie, swear words can be very empowering. They can be a rite of passage into adulthood, a declaration of strength and courage (hell, no!), or even a simple eye-opener to the depth of a situation.

For me, in all honesty, it just never really occurred to me that I *shouldn’t* swear. I can be a lady, be respectful to different realms and audiences, and also be able to say whatever the hell I want.


Karrie Kohlhaas June 30, 2010 at 6:31 pm

Well put, Rachel. And I would say the same about business owners and swearing. “I can be professional, be respectful to different realms and audiences, and also be able to say whatever the hell I want.” I’ve found that some of the same beliefs that stifle women from full expression are the same stories entrepreneurs tell themselves to stifle their authenticity…”What if people won’t like me?” “What if I offend someone?” “Will I be taken seriously?” This goes way beyond swearing and into every crevice of the business: marketing, naming, outgoing voicemail, even the type of business someone chooses. Thanks for your input Rach.


Rachel Whalley June 30, 2010 at 6:47 pm

You’re welcome. :)

As a parting shot on the swearing topic, a friend of mine says that you can tell when the camping trip is over based on how many swear words are substituted into the conversation.

For example, on day One: “Where the hell is that axe?”
Day Three: “That axe is shitty at fucking chopping, dude.”
Day Five: “This fucking fucker’s fucking fucked!”

The lady who tells this story is a professional beyond reproach. Yet I love her, ’cause with me, she’s bawdy as hell!


Suzette Sommer June 30, 2010 at 9:12 pm

When my kids were small, the issue of swearing came up. They started picking up some er, “expressions” from their mother. I figured I had better set them straight, so I told them that I could care less what “swear words” they used, but they had better be damn careful about the tone of voice they used with me. They could use any word, but a mean tone of voice would get them in a whole lot of trouble. Even if the word they said in a cruel voice was “apple” or “green bean.” Intent is everything, with me.

But, I felt obliged to also tell them that their mother is kinda strange, and other people often do not agree with me. If they used certain words at school, at a friend’s house or in a house of worship, OTHER grown ups would likely decide that they were not fit companions for THEIR children.

Fair warning. You will be judged by your words in the world, you will be judged by your tone of voice, at home.

Now, much much much later, my kids rarely swear. At least, around me. :-)
And, they have never used cruel tones of voice in front of me. I like that.
They do occasionally tell me that I use “fuck” way too much. *sigh* SS


Holli June 30, 2010 at 9:24 pm

I agree with Giyen. Now that I have kids, the rules in my life have shifted. For example, I eat veggies at more the one meal a day, because I want to model good habits. My 4 year old just learned some new swear words at a party (from a friend who I never noticed was much of a swearer – my ears weren’t so sensitive before), and I’ve had to explain that we use them once in a while, not in every sentence. He was using one word at every possible time.

As many have said, and you paraphrased, swearing is best used to punctuate language, not act as a substitute for a vast vocabulary.

Fun post!


Danny Bronski July 1, 2010 at 12:12 am

What a great post and sorry I am so late to this fuckin’ party.

As far as swearing in a business context, a little can go a long way toward demonstrating authenticity, and a lot can go a long way toward demonstrating that you either lack judgment or are incapable of precise expression.

The power of connection through risk of vulgarity can quickly backfire in a morass of “throwaway sentences”. That said, I swore a fair amount even when i was part of Corporate America…perhaps because I was unhappy there ;)


Karrie Kohlhaas July 1, 2010 at 9:00 am

Rachel, sounds like the amount of swearing is in inverse proportion to the sharpness of the axe. See how we can make this sound really smart?

Suzette, no doubt you were referred to as the “cool mom” on your block.


Karrie Kohlhaas July 1, 2010 at 11:02 am

Holli, your post reminds me that running a household can be like running your own small company. You have to oversee, motivate, manage, clarify, retool as conditions change and still, you are not totally in control of the people in your charge as they can be influenced by others and come back with a message that you did not intend. A good business manager, like a good mom or dad will redirect their people in a way that feels honoring and supportive, not stifling and judgmental. Sounds like you’ve got a healthy little business going. Glad you are eating more vegetables too.

Danny, when one opines on a topic like this, it only matters that you show up to the party, not how late you are. You say so eloquently what my mom told me as a kid: “a little dab will do ya.”


Rachel Whalley July 1, 2010 at 3:08 pm

I think the amount of swearing is inversely proportionate to the amount of physical comfort and cleanliness, myself.

When you’re dirty, hungry and tired, you care less about the fucker, perhaps?
Where does swearing fall on Maslow’s hierarchy?



Katie Kay July 7, 2010 at 11:57 am

I agree with Matt timing is everything. I also try to be very aware of who my audience is; do they seem like the kind-of-person that would be ok with a little profanity thrown in for colorful conversation. Let’s keep it out of public though, the 7 year old behind you enjoying a frapuccino at Starbucks with Mom doesn’t need to hear you tell your colleague about the f**king 2 hours meeting you have to with that pompous D**k Head! I’m just sayin’…


Karrie Kohlhaas July 7, 2010 at 8:26 pm

Nice addition, Katie. I think we have to ask ourselves if we are really adding or subtracting to the conversation (or in your case, the environment). And it’s not just kids in the room…I once heard a group of medical students having a very loud and very graphic conversation in a pasta restaurant. You know, discussing the entrails they saw during surgery. Normal stuff to them but they were ruining my dinner. Not only did this make them look less professional but totally unaware of others. Some people respond to swearing the same way I respond to graphic medical discussion. Good to remember. Thanks!


amy pennington July 16, 2010 at 11:22 pm

Funny, I just pondered this very same thing this week. I was teaching a preserving/cooking course and I said “pain in the ass” and other such lite-explanative phrases. After, I chastised myself for being slightly inappropriate, but in the end decided that I was ok with it. It’s how I live. It’s how I speak. Am I a lesser person because I drop a four-letter word on occasion? Does that lessen the lesson? Hell, no.


Karrie Kohlhaas December 29, 2011 at 5:09 pm

Amy, I just can’t imagine you not being your full-on self whether you were the student or the teacher! I like how you worked out your feelings about swearing on the spot in front of your class. It enriches the experience to see someone be that real and honest in the room with them–especially a twice-published author! (Congrats on your 2nd cookbook.)


Melanie Kissell December 27, 2011 at 9:40 pm

No sense trying to fudge my way through this one, Karrie — it’s time to call a spade, a shovel!

Presbyterian upbringing and all (gasp!) …
I swear sometimes.

There, I said it. And no lightning struck me nor did the sky fall in. And as far as I can tell, the world is still spinning on its axis. :)

I believe there’s a Grand Canyon size difference between a small biz owner or entrepreneur who cusses like a drunken sailor and one who finds the occasional four-letter word appropriate for the situation or conversation.

By the way …

This is one hell of a damn good post! ;)


Karrie Kohlhaas December 29, 2011 at 5:11 pm

Hi Melanie. Really enjoying your comments on my blog! It is funny how more than a decade into the new millennium we still feel a little daring admitting we swear. Thanks for your note. Looking forward to getting to know you better!


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