Cussing: What do women think?

Leslie Prevish Blog 8-13Recently, a lively LinkedIn discussion caught my eye about the increase of cuss words in marketing. Then, a moto-journalist friend started a Facebook thread about swearing, which prompted some agreements that there’s a time and a place for it. Others said it wasn’t acceptable anyplace.

What do women REALLY think about cussing, both in marketing and work environments? Do you have any idea what the majority your female customers — or prospective customers — think?

Familiarity breeds tolerance

It would seem that young people are more accepting of profanity than mature folks. I searched a bunch of articles, but couldn’t find any research to either support or deny this. So, I’m relying on my 20 years of experience. I think they are. It’s everywhere these days. Familiarity breeds tolerance. For many in Gen Y and Z generations, words that are taboo to older folks are just tame and lame to them.

I’ve been called bad--s (rhymes with bad lass) many times, from men and women. It’s not a compliment to me, because at the mature (well, kinda) age of 46, it makes me cringe. My mom was an English teacher and taught us that using profanity was a sign of being uneducated and not having a better vocabulary for expression.

Do I slip up sometimes? Yes. Most of the time it happens when I’m mountain biking on a technical section and think I’m going to crash and die. I am no saint. But I’m much more aware of swearing now than I used to be, and I try to keep it out of conversations. I’ve also unsubscribed to emails from brands who use it in their advertising. Guess I’m just not their target market. Or am I?

Swearing has definitely become more common in the powersports and outdoor industries over the past two decades. Some justify it by saying that it’s the “norm” and a way to be “relevant” and “authentic” to the younger audiences (two buzz words I really hope disappear from marketing meetings someday). Others believe ad agencies are just getting lazier and relying on shock factor — instead of humor and/or benefits — to get people to buy stuff.

Dealership vs. corporate

The dealership at which I worked in the mid-90’s was owned by a couple who fostered a family environment among both employees and customers. There would be an occasional swear word, but it wasn’t the norm. What is it like at your business? If you don’t allow profanity during sales conversations with prospective customers, do you let employees swear in meetings or with each other?


At one corporate office, I watched the environment change in meetings when senior leaders started to swear more often. It seemed “okay” for others to join in, even a strange “bonding” experience that boggled my mind. Over just a few months, more meetings were peppered with profanity. It started to bug me — and after talking with some friends, I found out I wasn’t the only one who found it offensive and disrespectful. It did seem more women were offended then men. Well, not all women…

In a monthly meeting I ran, a woman slipped the F-word. When she was finished talking, I politely stated that meetings I led would not have swearing. Was I limiting someone’s creative juices? Maybe. But I knew that some others in the meeting were also fed up with the increase in potty-mouths.

In conversations with co-workers, we discussed how swearing, especially when aimed at a person, or person’s idea, can actually impair creative thinking and cause people to shut down and quit participating. I actually once heard a CEO say, “That’s the dumbest XXX-ing idea I ever heard.” Silence, and not much discussion after that. Does your working environment have conversations with respect, or aggression?

Work, Play or Home

“I can turn it off or on,” said an employee of mine. She said she swore like a sailor at home, but could keep it out of professional settings. She knew I didn’t like profanity. I cautioned her to be aware of it, because it could seep into discussions at work or networking events. Ironically, 15 minutes later, we were talking about non-work related topic for which she had great passion. She dropped the F-word, covered her mouth, turned red and apologized. “I guess you were right,” she said.

So even if swearing is okay at home and with friends, remember that it can slip into your vernacular at work, especially in discussions for which you have a strong passion. As I mentioned in my last article, Closing Starts with Hello, first impressions make it — or break it. Profanity seems to be more accepted in the media and in business, so some may feel there’s no harm joining in. Consider this scenario…

You’re at dinner with a group of co-workers from all levels of the company from the owner to the maintenance guy. Maybe a few friends are along, and even some spouses or kids. Someone swears, then others start to do it. Consider the folks who don’t appreciate it and inside are thinking, “Don’t they know swearing makes them seem less educated and disrespectful?” Based on the recent social media comments, a bunch of folks would agree with this statement. What if this person could be your next boss — or customer? Your decision: Is it worth it?

If you aren’t sure how much you swear, ask your friends. If you decide you want to decrease it, tell others to call you on it. Get one of those cheesy “swear jars,” and start dropping in a quarter each time. You may be surprised how much an awareness of profanity can have on you — and others.

A rider for 26 years, Leslie spent 15 years with Harley-Davidson (3 retail, 12 corporate) and created their marketing to women role in 2007. She spearheaded Women Riders Month and a Garage Party Campaign which drove 25,000 women to dealers. After 2 years at Trek Bicycles, Leslie now helps companies sell more to new audiences.

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  1. I agree that there is a time and place for cussing, and while you're at work is not the time and within marketing is not the place. As an avid "potty mouth," I can confirm that frequently swearing at home or amongst friends makes it challenging to break the habit elsewhere. However, I'm a highly intelligent individual and a proficient linguist, so I find it ignorant when people say foul language is a "crutch for people with little intelligence." I also find it laughable that you, Leslie, are offended when people call you a bad**s. Learn to take a compliment, even if it's not in your language of choice. Aside from that, I complete agree with your view on cussing.

    • Jake, thanks for the comment! I know many highly educated people who swear, including several good friends and family members. I don't believe it is a crutch for those with little intelligence. That's what I was taught from my mom, so my initial perception of someone who swears a lot is influenced by growing up with her.

      I do know that people who call me a bad--- are giving me a compliment. I just smile. I haven't ever told anyone directly that it makes me cringe a bit. It isn't my goal in life to clean up the language of others. I just wanted to share what I've experienced in professional environments, both at corporate and dealership levels.

  2. well said, great article! Your Mom was right.

  3. Les...great column!

    I think the growing prevalence of “casual” language in business settings mirrors a growing coarseness in society in general. For example, I’m frequently amazed at the language or messaging people will slap on the bumper or back window of a truck. I often wonder if they ever drive to their mother’s house...

    And you are right about a generational difference...the language that seeps out of my (very intelligent, college-educated) 20-year-old daughter's mouth in front of her parents has never been uttered my me around my parents. She's starting a career at Nike and I've warned her more than once that bad language habits could put her in an embarrassing spot some day.

  4. As a boomer, I can cuss with the best of them or not at all, depending on the audience. I see the problem primarily with gen X's not being able to filter it out that I don't see with the gen Y's.

    I hadn't really thought about cuss words in Marketing before now and although it wouldn't bother me (I've been conditioned), I would definitely agree that it's unprofessional no matter the media.

    What I see as even a bigger problem is the use of the buzz word/phrase of the moment. While it's hard to judge how long any word will remain at the top of the popularity pyramid, I feel any use of said word/phrase in marketing after it has plateaued is seriously detrimental, and to me, only shows a lack of creativity by those still using it.

    That said, I plead with this forum to help eliminate the word "amazing" from our vocabulary for all time. It's been used so much that it no longer has any meaning. Honestly, it's time to put a fork in that one, cause it's done!

    Pun intended...

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