Shut the Front Door: Profanity, Teamwork and Accomplishment

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I grew up with Marines and then Stagehands. No way around it. I learned to curse as a youngster from the best.

In Okinawa our lives centered around military culture. I saw the film “Top Gun” at the height of the cold war with a bunch of young Marines, and they cursed and cheered with vigor for the entire show. They were young fellows, away from home, watching a movie about blowing up Russians with their pals. So of course they let the F bombs fly, regardless of kids around.

My Mother is one of the great cursers I’ve ever known. You Modern Girls, in our enlightened era of gender equality, enjoy the profanity with the best of them. All the foulest conversations I’ve overheard have been between women when no fellows are around, shockingly so. Men don’t tell each other stories like that. But my Mom was a feminist trailblazer, cursing with poetic brevity to express disappointment and emphasis, mostly at us children. To my knowledge my Father has never cursed. I’ve never heard him do so in my 40 years.

In the Boy Scouts adult leaders would curse at or with us with absolute disregard for propriety, out in the Woods. There was an understanding that a world existed for Men to be Men together. Many an elegantly turn of phrase was acquired from grizzly old Scoutmasters deep in the woods, my favorite to this day being, “Let’s stop playing Grab Ass over there!” as a general admonishment against any sort of horseplay or fighting. This amuses me endlessly.

No one swears like a Stagehand. There is a backstage shortcut of spare language to move things along efficiently and quietly, but there is always time to insert profanity for inflection, emphasis, and to express disappointment with this or that outcome or a shortcoming of management. No one, save for the Irish, can curse like my IATSE brothers and sisters.

When I entered post grad school Office Life, it took some time to adjust to cube life, including the foreign notion of staying until 5pm for no discernable reason. Stagehands work until exactly that point when that day’s tasks are done and then get the hell out of there for home or the sailboat, something our office culture could benefit from greatly. More is rarely better, particularly time spent at one’s desk on a summer’s day on a Friday.

I also had to learn to watch my mouth when I entered the office, with my prior working life filled with casual profanity as a part of most every conversation. It was shocking to me to see colleagues talk to each other without it.

In the best and most high functioning teams I know profanity is an occasional part of communication and reflects trust, ability, and mutual fondness. The best time to curse at something is when it goes wrong, to get it out of your system and to acknowledge temporary setback. I tend to let go of disappointment quickly. The Colts let me down every year and I’ve got it down to a 15-minute pout before looking forward to next season.

High functioning groups work hard, play hard, and let fly profanity from time to time in the making of jokes and keeping things light and on even keel. I’ve yet to see any meaningful and difficult tasks accomplished without the occasional profane outburst. It is a part of the creative process, the outlet for setback, the glue of American conversation in our secular age.

Interestingly, there are some groups that use prayer instead of profanity, and that can be just as good as long as everyone is on board. Show me a group that prays together in earnest and I am betting they get the job done. Are they are fun at the bar? Debatable.

Curse in the workplace? I try not to most of the time. I never curse at people in anger, particularly subordinates. I rarely raise my voice. People who know me understand that when I am angry I get very quiet. There is almost nothing I find more objectionable than witnessing people curse out customer support folks, waitresses, or direct reports. That sort of power imbalance means they cannot talk back. Don’t be an ass.

I say the F word really more than I should. It is how they raised me. But so do all of us making it happen in the 21st Century.

It is how we get Shit done.

About jeremymhatch

If I could, I'd write about nothing but tacos. Alas, I am fundraising and leadership consultant in the arts, focusing on contributed revenue growth for organizations. Send me a compliment or complaint. And the location for the good tacos in your town.
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