To Swear Or Not To Swear: Marketing, The F-Word And Other Language Conundrums

To Swear Or Not To Swear: Marketing, The F-Word And Other Language Conundrums

Warning: language ahead!

I was originally going to title this article: “Don’t Like My Language? F#@% You.” And even though I’d love to try that as a headline A/B test, I didn’t want this to come across as either confrontational or sensational.

The point is not to make a case for “language” in writing but really to explore its effects and why it matters to you, your business and marketing.

Language Is What We Make It

What is a “bad word”? I bet for most of us, saying something like, “Boy, that pisses me off,” is not particularly rebellious but I know people who find that offensive and distasteful.

Others spout the F-word with impunity, about as often as they say “and” or “the”.

Does that make one person rude and the other just a regular Joe?

Well, that depends on your perspective. And why I said that language is what we make it. Along the way we choose the words that “offend” us and the ones we accept.

My dad tells me a story about someone he knew who wouldn’t let any objectionable language cross her lips. So whenever she was angry or emotional she would substitute the word “carrot cake” for a swear word.

Stubbed her toe? Carrot cake! Broke a glass? Carrot cake! Electric bill too high? Carrot cake!

Sounds funny, but really, carrot cake is quite delicious and should not be disparaged like that.

And the question my father always asked was… if Mrs. No Language said “carrot cake” with the same intent as one might say “fuck” then was Mrs. No Language really behaving any better?

The vast majority of people I know have no qualms about saying things like darn, drat, heck, shoot and bummer. But turn a darn into a damn and WHOA! All bets are off.

Why? Not because we’ve angered the gods or spirits or trees but because that’s what we’ve collectively agreed to be offended by.

Language Is Situational

As a kid, I was not allowed to say “heck”, as in “What the heck is that?” And “hell” was the absolute worst of the worst of the bad language I could think to say. One day when I was about ten and in a red rage over something my brother did, I screwed up my courage and squeaked out the word “hell.”

That was immediately followed by me getting my mouth washed out with soap. Yes, that was a thing.

Today I sprinkle the word hell into conversations with my mother and she no longer runs for the soap. I even occasionally slip with the f-word when I’m really, really mad and still, no soap. It probably doesn’t thrill her but the point is that we learn to accept different language in different situations.

Here’s a great example of situational language. During a conversation some time ago with a friend’s then-six-year-old son, I was informed that he was not allowed to say the f-word. As the conversation progressed and he started talking about exercise and health and broccoli, I became more and more confused about what that meant.

It turned out that the f-word in their world was “fat.” A bunch of moms had banded together to prohibit their kids from calling people fat. And thus, a new f-word was born.

I’ll be honest with you – I’d rather someone told me to fuck off than call me fat!

Language And Marketing – Ok Or Off Limits?

Opinions abound on this one. From the likes of Erika Napoletano  whose home page alone manages a shit, asshole and “f&*k yeah”, to others who are notoriously anti-profanity in any form.

Language doesn’t offend me unless it’s used in a hateful or demeaning way. There’s a difference between telling someone to go to hell and saying “that was one hell of a show.”

But it does offend others. And thus the conundrum. Do you censor yourself because you might offend some people or do you speak your mind because that’s who you are?

It depends on how you want to do business and how you define yourself. Some people say that if you swear in your writing or speaking that you’re going to turn people off. And that’s true. But it’s up to you to decide how much that matters.

Some people refuse to eliminate a single f-word from their vocabularies while others will temper themselves “in polite company.” I think most of us fall into the latter category. I know lots of people – myself included – who are plenty colorful in some situations but otherwise controlled when business or polite discourse calls for it.

You have to think about where you fall on the spectrum. And decide how you want to be perceived and whether it matters that some people aren’t going to like it. Maybe the occasional f-word is not worth losing business over. Or maybe it’s not worth doing business with someone you feel that you need to censor yourself for. Only you can make that decision.

When Language Goes Wrong

I get offended by a lot of things. Cruelty. Hatred. Willful ignorance. Insensitivity. Racism and bigotry and closed-mindedness. The f-word doesn’t make the list.

But I do think language can go too far. There’s a difference between colorful language and profanity. You can say a lot without a constant stream of fucks and assholes coming out of your mouth. In fact, I’d argue that language is more colorful when you find alternatives for those common “bad” words we hear so frequently.

If I was known for running around saying “fuck” every time something went wrong but one day threw a “carrot cake” into the equation, that would be a lot more colorful and impactful.

Sometimes we fall back on those words because we’re not thinking creatively. I know for me, when I find myself mired in a long string of one-syllable words that defy polite company, it’s usually because my brain is off and my lizard has taken over.

So if you find yourself stuck in a pool of, oh, seven or so words George Carlin style, it might be time to swim into better territory.

Here’s when I don’t think you should swear…

When you’re doing it just because.

If it’s not part of your personality to begin with.

When you cease to have anything interesting to say and rely solely on the shock value.

When there’s a better way to say what you want to say but you’re too lazy to think of it.

But Seriously, F#$& The Language Police

In reality, it would be nice if we all got to speak as we wanted without fear that the words we chose would lose us business or friends.

But that is not the case. Strangely, people will forgive me for forgetting their birthday but not for saying, “Wow, I fucked up, sorry.”

If you know me or read my blogs or listen to our podcast, you know I may talk about people who piss me off and warn you about some marketing crap to avoid, but you also know that I say the f-word or any other “objectionable” words about as often as I use the word “sardine” or “backpack.” Which means sometimes, if that’s what the sentence or situation calls for. But not all the time so it sounds like I just learned the word sardine and want everyone to know how proud of that I am.

This post is the exception, because I am making a point about language and honestly, it gets a lot more noticeable and tiresome to keep saying “the f-word” than to just say the darn f-word – but on the whole nobody has ever complained about my language. Except my dad, of course, who really hates when I get “pissed off”…

Anyway, I guess the point is that this is the decision I’ve made for me and my business. I don’t want or need to swear like a sailor to make a point, and in fact I find that words like “carrot cake” are much more amusing anyway, but if the occasional f-bomb is going to offend you and burn that bridge, well, it might have been nice knowing you but… have a slice of carrot cake and enjoy your day.

What’s your stand? Are you conscious of the language you use, one way or another? Have you made a choice about certain words you’ll use or not use? Do you worry about losing business over how you speak or are you of the “fuck it” mentality?

I’d love to hear your opinion. Share it in the comments below.