Not long ago, I ran across an article by a CEO of what appeared to be an impressive, progressive company. I expected to find a glimpse of useful wisdom, but was stopped in my tracks by the sheer amount of profanity and vulgarity he had woven into his words.
The CEO may have had brilliant counsel to share, but I was so distracted by the scatological remarks and gratuitous profanities that peppered his remarks that I can’t even remember the subject of the article, or the name of his company.
Now, I’m not a prude or someone who lives in a sheltered world. I can swear with more vigor and variety than most people I know. I’d also wager that I have mastery of profanities you’ve never heard, including delightful epithets from other languages. Writers tend to gorge themselves on obscure vocabulary.
But I don’t understand why a presumably respected leader of a business found it necessary to publicly spew the kind of language most of us would never utter in polite company while promoting his business. Were the terms he used a critical component of the message he was trying to convey? Sure didn’t seem like it. Instead, he reminded me of a middle-schooler who couldn’t wait to share the dirty words he learned that day. His company may be phenomenal, but I’ll always see it as a club of potty-mouthed youngsters.
Perhaps it’s just another symptom of an era in which crass has become the new normal. We have entertainers who spit out profanity with the enthusiasm of a tent preacher. We have professional athletes who can’t be interviewed without a ready hand on the bleep button. And we even have a president who brushes aside his use of what he dismisses as locker-room talk.
There’s nothing new about crass or profane language. It’s long been an argot used within specific groups. Take comments such as “he swears like a drunken sailor” or the casual profanity long associated with factory workers. What does appear to be new is a willingness to take that language out of the private settings and spew it publicly. I once worked in an ad agency where f-bombs were the lingua franca among the staff, but even the filthiest mouths among us knew to use restraint when clients were visiting.
The simple fact is that profanity and vulgarity are lazy substitutes for real emotion. Writers who use them the way I sprinkle parmesan cheese on pasta are taking the easy way out. Being crass offers no real benefit to the speaker or her audience. It doesn’t improve communication, sharpen meaning, or enhance anyone’s image.
I’m sure some readers are dismissing my concerns as a generational thing, writing me off as some kind of ancient fogey. Yet I firmly believe that there are far more people who find such language offensive than those who accept it. Granted, the offended may have averaged more birthdays, but they probably make up the vast majority of your target audience. Why run the risk of turning them away just so you can flaunt your fluidity with f-bombs?
In my college years, a favorite philosophy professor realized he could catch the attention of sleepy undergrads by swearing the proverbial blue streak. A reply to a question about Plutarch quickly devolved into an f-bomb-laden rant, Lewis Black-style. He kept everyone awake and chuckling, but they remembered him for the coarseness of his words instead of the brilliance of his scholarship. Our post-class conversations revealed a thoughtful scholar that my classmates never got to see, because they couldn’t get past his language. Instead of creating connections, his approach put distance between him and those who might have benefited from his knowledge.
Face it: the world is already full of tastelessness and vulgarity. Why would anyone feel the need to drag us down any deeper? If you want to bandy obscenities and vulgarities around the locker room, the golf course, or the bar, have at it. But please don’t weave them into your conversations or writings about your business. It may be a little more challenging to stay on the high road, but it’s well worth the effort.