On the Strategic Use of the F-word: Is Swearing a Currency in High Tech?

06/28/2010 11:53 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Caroline Simard Leader, Anita Borg Institute’s research and executive program initiative

Sometimes, I wonder about my no-swearing policy in my parenting. It turns out swearing is somewhat of a currency in many industries.

Recently, the blogosphere went abuzz about Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz uttering the F-word during an interview. I was surprised by the overall reaction - in high-tech, swearing is not uncommon at all. Bartz is in good company: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Steve Ballmer, Mark Zuckerberg, and many others have been known to swear (and just last week President Obama's speech writers seem to have deliberately added cursing to his repertoire in response to the BP spill).

Indeed, leadership and swearing often go hand in hand in the U.S. -- swearing is an act of power.

What is interesting to me isn't these individual occurrences of swearing, but what they tell us about the culture of high-tech and the U.S. corporate culture in general. As our research report in collaboration with Stanford University found , this is a culture that overwhelmingly values being outspoken and assertive, and swearing is anothing more than a reflection of these values. Male-dominated work environments tend to display more instances of swearing and men tend to swear more than women , perhaps explaining why the reaction to Bartz's utterance was so strong -- even though her interviewer started the interview with the F-word, quite clearly setting the tone for the entire conversation (and yet the coverage was overwhelmingly focused on her use of the word).

Consider the following comment from a technical woman we interviewed as part our survey of 1800 technical employees in Silicon Valley: "In the tech industry,... if you don't walk in there and you're not loud and obnoxious and throw your weight around and stuff, you can't get taken seriously." Another woman we interviewed, who had over 35 years experience, discussed how she learned to "curse like a sailor" in order to hold her own in meetings and be taken seriously. Now, as she became a grandmother, she found it difficult to stop herself in front of the grandkids.

The question becomes, who doesn't feel like they fit in this culture? In some of our interviews, we heard from technical men and women from various backgrounds who didn't want to have to embrace this communication style -- most notably, many technical employees who were not originally from the U.S. commented about the challenges of having to adapt to the "in your face" communication style, one that would not translate to success in their home countries. Since swearing and the value placed in assertive communication is also incredibly culturally specific (as an immigrant to the U.S., it took me years to grasp the nuance of levels of offensiveness in curse words in the U.S.), how does this professional culture translate into a global and diverse workplace? In order to attract, retain, and capitalize on the best talent, companies need to worry about creating an inclusive culture where a diversity of voices are heard - even the non-swearing, none "in your face" ones. This leads to swearing as a tool to be used strategically, in keeping with the kind a culture a company strives to create.

What do readers think? Is being assertive and swearing a currency in high-tech? Is it possible to be taken seriously in tech without being "in your face", and should we then teach young graduates this communication style? Is this reflective of a past culture and disappearing as the workforce becomes more diverse, or do you see this culture continuing? Is this compatible with a globalized workforce, with the presence of multiple cultures at all levels of power?