Friday, January 26, 2007



Stanford prof Bob Sutton is gearing up for release of The No Asshole Rule, and I'll be one of the first in line to buy it. The tolerance for bad behavior in the workplace has certainly caused a lot of problems over the years. (Bob has written extensively on it, and prompted by Bob's work, I've posted a few times on it myself.) As he launches the promotional tour for his book, it will be interesting to see how the more mainstream outlets deal with the provocative title word - a word that is certainly used aplenty in business, but still has a cringe factor associated with it in what used to be called "polite company." (This is a group that by my count is surely shrinking. It may be the company I keep, but I can think of no more than a handful of people with whom I actually interact who might - I can't even say for certain would - be offended by the use of the word.) You'll recall that it didn't do much more than cause a bit of amusement when, during the last campaign, George W was caught in an unguarded moment using the word to describe a reporter he didn't like.

I'm sure that once Bob hits the road, there'll be plenty of use of the word "jerk", and all kinds of minced word, prissy, and smirking work-arounds as the interviewers skirt the title issue. It will be interesting to see how many different ways people can say 'it' without actually saying 'it.' (Although some barriers are falling a bit, and the Today show used the word a-hole.)

'(I don't remember how they got around "the word" when Princeton's Harry Frankfurt published On Bullshit a couple of years ago. Did they blur out the cover, like they do with the private parts when they show nudes?)

The whole discussion, and - as we used to say on the playground of Our Lady of the Angels Grammar School - the whole Sugar-Honey-Ice-Tea-storm that starts swirling up in the aforementioned polite company will be fun to observe. (Not to mention the discussion around the tyrannic reign of workplace assholes, which is the more important point to begin with. If you're interested, I've done a couple of posts on it here on Pink Slip: Building a Civilized Workplace and All Worked Up. )

There are several paths that I suspect that the conversation around "the word" will take. One is just why some words are considered offensive and others not, and why some words make good and effective slang and others don't.

Using the word "anus" might cause a titter among 11 year old boys. ('The planet Uranus. Haha. Get it? Your-anus.'). But it's an "acceptable word", while the word asshole is not. Similarly, manure's okay, so's excrement. But shit? And the f-word. Well, let's not even go there: not to be used in polite intercourse. (And ever notice then when people use the kiddie substitutes like "sugar", "poop," and "fudge" they seem to draw more attention to the word than if they used "the real thing"?)

The thing is, when it comes to the sheer brilliant pungency of using the impolite words, the substitutes just won't do.

He's acting like an anus? No way.

She's full of excrement. Yawn.

Go have intercourse with yourself. Not quite there.

As for asshole? To quote my dear cousin Barbara who once and only once used the word in front of her exceedingly polite, proper, and genuinely kind mother, my beloved Aunt Margaret, "sometimes you just have to call an asshole an asshole."

Accept no substitutes: jerk don't work.

There'll also likely be a lot of side-conversations about what type of language is acceptable in the workplace. I suspect that it all comes down to the industry, the setting, the uses, how and why it's said, and "who's around." I mean, I wouldn't want to go into a hospital and hear the doctors and nurses swearing their heads off, but if they want to do it when patients and visitors aren't around, who cares? I wouldn't want to hear a judge swearing at an attorney in court, but whatever she says in chambers, well, that's just fine, too.

I admit it would be terrible to work in a place where everyone swore at each other in anger, i.e., behaved like assholes. But for the most part I've worked in companies where using four letter words as descriptors, using them humorously, as terms of endearment, and as casual sprinklings in the general conversation, has been completely acceptable. I'm pretty much inured to it by now.

(I did not, however, grow up around much swearing. My mother never swore*, and my father never used "strong language" in front of the family. One time, when our ball rolled into a neighbor's yard and the old grouch wouldn't roll it back, my father said he was an S.O.B. My mother had a fit. And when I was in second grade, someone told me that my brother Tom had said S-H-I-T - yes, they spelled it out for me. I denied that he had - hey, I was going to defend my bro; if anyone was going to tattle on him, it was going to be me - but I had no idea what S-H-I-T was.)

In the workplace, there doesn't need to be a "no swearing" rule. The rule should be just use your judgement: not in front of the senior execs (unless you're one of them, a near-peer [note to 11 year old readers: that's peer, not pee-er], or not unless you really need to use a word to underscore a point). Not with your customers (never). Not in front of someone's little kids or grandmother in for an office visit. And never to demean someone. While we're at the no-rule rules: when you first join a company, don't start shooting your own mouth off until you figure out just what type of language the traffic will bear.

All this may be just because I'm used to it. During the Clarence Thomas appointment hearings, when Anita Hill reported on some of the things he'd said to her, I remember Senator Orrin Hatch saying something along the lines of it being just unimaginable to think that someone would use the words pubic hair in the workplace. As we said at the time, old Orrin had certainly never worked with us.

All this aside, there remain words that I have never and would never use - personally or professionally. Years ago, I worked in a large cubicle environment. The woman in the next cube, who had a piercing voice to begin with, threaded terms in her conversations that I - no doubt like Senator Hatch - found just unimaginable. I mean, sometimes you have to call an asshole an asshole, but a c***? Or a c***-s*****? Here's where I draw the line.

I do think about the general coarsening of society a lot. I worry especially that children are exposed to too much that is blatantly sexual and blatantly violent. I worry about everything - books, magazines, movies - getting dumbed down and coarsened, that people will value Eminem over Cole Porter, Bratz dolls over baby dolls, celebrity over contribution.

Is an acceptance of language that was once used rarely, or completely verboten, a sign that we're reaching the end of time? I don't think so. And I'll also note that, while words formerly categorized as coarse are more commonly used these days, ethnic and sexual slurs have, for the most part, blessedly fallen out of use. Sure, the people I know throw the f-bomb, but they'd never hurl the n-word, or any of the other vicious and demeaning terms used for groups of people.

Good luck to Bob Sutton with his book (and his quest to fix a part of the workplace that in many companies is broken). I'll be looking for him to autograph my copy when his tour hits Boston.


*Yes, I know that technically "swearing" means taking an oath, and the "cursing" means calling down a curse on someone. But in common parlance, we all know that it really means using "vulgar" language.

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