Tuesday, December 17, 2013

When Expletives Happen, Or, What a Maroon!

Recently, I had an interesting (and funny) interaction with a student at my library. I was heading out of my office when the student in question, who was sitting just outside my door, cursed loudly. He blushed when he noticed me standing there, and stammered out an apology. The ensuing conversation was fun:
Me: "Do you think I've never heard these words before? Do you think I've never said these words before?"
Him: "But not at full volume in a library."
Me: "I work in a library and have for years. Of course I've said those words at full volume in a library."
Him: *laughing, obviously more relaxed*
I wasn't lying just to make him feel better (although I will admit I might have, given similar circumstances). I do cuss at work. Not as much as I used to, now that I'm the Head Cheese in Charge (of a very small library), but [expletive] happens. There are the occasional expletives of frustration. I've also been known to throw a few choice bits into conversations with students who I know well (and who I know won't have a heart attack). There's even, from time to time, a certain hand gesture that could be mistaken for someone miming rolling dice, but that is actually something quite rude. 

The thing is, most people I know use off-color language at least occasionally. Also, almost nobody I know gets really gets offended at these words; they just get offended on behalf of others. Besides, if they can say "ass" on prime time television, I figure I can say it in my library once in a while.

How about you? Do you keep it 100% clean? Or are you known to cuss?

And because no discussion of this type is truly complete without a word or two (or seven) from George Carlin...


  1. I have to admit that I am pretty shocked. I would never cuss at the library--especially not in hearing of a patron. I don't use that sort of language in my regular life though so maybe that's why I find it kind of crazy. Unprofessional to the say the least. I'm 35 in case anyone imagines that I am 65.

    1. I worked in a restaurant to put myself through my first grad degree, and the blue language flies fast and furious in those settings. I disagree with your assessment of "unprofessional to say the least." A decent cross section of professional librarians (and paraprofessionals) I know do use this kind of language - not only in person, but on their blogs.

      I don't drop the f-bomb every other word or anything, and I never curse at patrons, but I work with an adult population.

      Thanks for your comment, regardless.

  2. If I were a youth services librarian I wouldn't cuss at work, ever. But at a university? There are times when it's appropriate. For instance, I was doing a good-cop bad-cop routine with a professor when talking to a class about plagiarism. I said I was trying to help them learn how to cite because their professor (my husband) can be a real asshole when he spots plagiarism... Audible gasp! Laughter! It worked. My boss was observing me that day, actually, and she found it amusing and effective.

  3. For me, it's all about setting. A university library seems to have more freedom in language choices. I've discovered with students that an occasional word is humanizing and can help me appear more open and approachable. With colleagues (including my director) it's more realistic and reflects our casual culture. The top university administration, however, has me watching every word and editing as I go along.

  4. I tend to not swear as I am in a high school but I hear it often! I do swear but tend to do it only when really vexed ;-) and then I get staff who stop and stare if I do swear :-) but I tend to not swear in my life not just at work!

  5. I've uttered most every word imaginable at all my places of employment. I know some consider the use of fuck as either low brow or unimaginative. I consider it to be an authentic response from a person. Swear words tend to come out of my mouth during times of frustration or to make a point. If you are interested in how swearing has evolved over time you should read Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr.

  6. I swear all the time at home, and increasingly at work, albeit much more often with colleagues than users. (It helps that my boss swears too.)

    I see it as a REALLY good sign when an academic member of staff swears to (not at...) me - they feel relaxed and able to be themselves, which means I'm doing my job right. So I'd agree with Andrew that authenticity is the issue here.

    I have an unfinished blogpost about 'the zone of formality' - essentially I think the key to good communication is to be as informal as you can in any given situation without being unprofessional. And of course that isn't a fixed set of criteria - the zone is fluid and moves with the situation. So there are times when I'm a million miles away from swearing - but I'm still being as informal as I can be in the scenario, because formality is a construct, and constructs often hamper proper communication.

    So with that in mind I'd disagree with Christine's assessment that swearing is unprofessional to say the least - it CAN be, for sure, but it's not a fixed, objective concept. What constitutes professional is subjective and depends on all sorts of things. Assessing all those factors and judging it correctly is a skill. (I don't always get it right. But when I get it right I tend to make a lot of progress where a cautious approach would not.)

    I'm glad you wrote about this Jessica! Interesting stuff.

    p.s I do dislike it when people write F*ck etc - it's really not the ability to see all the letters of a word that makes it offensive or otherwise, for fuck's sake. :)

  7. Yes, I have been known to cuss at work and in front of classes. Of course, I'm at a university library, not a high school or public library.

    In my semester-long info lit course, I use an exercise developed by some of my colleagues that involves using an episode of Penn & Teller's Bullshit to talk about rhetorical devices. We discuss how and why they say "bullshit" instead of "that's not true" and why they called that one guy "a fucking asshole." While it's a good tool as an over-the-top example of the use of several rhetorical devices, it has an added bonus: Opening the door at the beginning of the semester to examining how and why people include cuss words for rhetorical impact means that if I slip a curse word in there on occasion, they can analyze why I did it if they are at all bothered by it.

  8. I'm at a place where they're pretty strict about it being a "professional environment" (career college), and honestly, the students really do need someone to model good behavior. You walk down the halls and all you hear out of them is a mixed bag of swears and racial slurs. So yeah, I keep it clean so they have less of an excuse to push back when I try to ask them if they might perhaps tone things down a bit.

    I remember one particular discussion with a student about her language, where I told her: "You know how often I swear around my friends? So many times! But I know how to stop saying that when I transition to a new environment!" (In response to her claim that it was hard for her not to use racial slurs since she's not used to monitoring herself for it).

    By the end of the semester I usually have them more used to thinking about what they say in professional environments and around people who aren't their close friends.

  9. I have a somewhat odd relationship with cussing. I do it a lot in my private life, though the proliferation of spawn among my friends has made it a bit more taboo.

    At work, though? I try to limit the swearing, or use "alternative swears" where folks know what you mean, but you seem to be making an effort not to swear (I picked this up teaching 6th grade). My favorite? "Son of a monkey."

    In my after school program (mostly middle schoolers and above), I'm working to model a bit better behavior... I don't mine the occasional expletive exclamation, but have come down hard on expletive insults and insults based on race, sex, or gender orientation. The word "gay" has proven remarkably hard to stamp out of their language, but they like sticking around to play video games, so I am hopeful.