What the flipping fudge? A note to social media pottymouths.


One of my favorite podcasts is Media Hacks, which features Mitch Joel, C.C. Chapman, Julien Smith, Chris Brogan, Hugh McGuire, and Christopher S. Penn discussing a loose agenda of topics spanning social media, marketing, technology and the ways we create and consume content in the modern world. On one episode, for instance, they debated the question, “What is a book?”

I often learn new things from the podcast, but I enjoy it more as a peek into the social media zeitgeist. Plus, the vibe is more like sitting around a bar with a group of smart, funny, enthusiastic friends than like a seminar.

On their most recent episode, Mitch said he occasionally gets complaints from listeners about the “NSFW” (not safe for work) language they sometimes use. Julien especially likes to shoehorn the F-word into every conversational nook and cranny.

The question they pondered was whether or not they should be worried. Here’s how they described it in the show notes:

  • Grappling with the use of naughty language and how it can affect both reputation and growing audience.
  • Is swearing and "Selling out" related?

I have no problem with strong language. I worked in the music industry for several years before coming to SAS. People at the record label seemed to use swearing as an auditory reminder, both to the speaker and the listener, that they weren’t working for “the man.” The Media Hacks crew touched on that in the “selling out” discussion.

But I have a different perspective as someone who now works inside a large company. On many occasions I’ve wanted to forward episodes of Media Hacks to colleagues because they were discussing a topic directly related to what we do. Every time I’ve had to stop and wonder if there was swearing in what I was sending, and if I thought the recipient would be offended. Sometimes I haven’t been sure and haven’t forwarded the content.

Does that mean I’m too uptight? Too concerned about superficial things like etiquette rather than the value of the content? No, that means I work for a large company, that, like every other large company, has HR policies and conduct guidelines.

It’s not just that I don’t want to break the rules. I don’t want to offend anyone, make them feel uncomfortable or, at a stage where I’m trying to convince people that social media is an important tool for business, give them a reason to dismiss it as unprofessional.

On several occasions I’ve been asked to recommend social media speakers for events. I’ve tempered my recommendations based on what I know of the speaker’s public persona. I would not recommend a speaker to one of our large executive events who I knew was going to stalk up and down the stage shouting obscenities.

So my answer to you, dear hacks, is yes, swearing can affect both your reputation and your growing audience. I’m not saying you should necessarily care about that. I’m not judging you or wagging a finger.

I’m just telling you that right now, you’re NSFW. Whether or not you want to be SFW is up to you.




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  1. I have discussed this exact topic several times over the years with different folks. Many see the objection to curse words as a sell out, but they are limiting themselves by continuing to use profane speech. This is similar to being unprofessional in dress, appearance, etc., in the office. It limits your message.
    I don't see profanity as an essential part of normal vocabulary. It should be avoided in mixed work environments. The entire point of profanity is to shock and offend. Why take the chance that someone would be offended and have your message lost to that audience?
    Dropping a hammer on your foot and an expletive can be forgiven. Using it to describe your hamburger, probably not.

  2. Totally understandable. I worked at a large music label for a short time. It was a strange environment. Fun, but not the template by any stretch to be used in most corporate environments. What the experience of working in a dressed down workplace culture did was make me realize aspects of "corporate" which can become stagnant or sterile, and that could come in the way of having a workforce environment that stimulates excitement, creativity and imagination.
    This all said, when swearing comes into the mix, it is a bit of a turn off no matter what the circumstances. One further, never mind the not safe for work, I'm in total agreement that it isn't safe for anyone's image and/or reputation. As for the selling out bit, if "The Cos" could do it with comedy, and still be held in high regard and esteem by the Chris Rock's of the circuit, there is no good reason why the same can't apply in this case.

  3. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I think I agree with you 100% and this is why I try not to swear on Media Hack and I certainly don't think I ever do on Managing the Gray.
    The pass along factor is something to think about for sure. I don't think you are being uptight, you are just being professional.
    Thanks again for the post!

  4. David B. Thomas on

    Roger, I think you're exactly mirroring my point in a way that puts it in a great light: people who swear are limiting themselves. Again, I'm not being judgmental, just pointing out that fact. Also, you cracked me up with the mental image of someone describing their hamburger.

  5. David B. Thomas on

    Joseph, good point. I miss a lot of the aspects of working for the label, like the "hey, here's a great idea let's go do it and see what happens" approach. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. Funny that you bring up Bill Cosby. That's the analogy my dad always uses with this topic.
    CC, thanks for the comment, and thanks for Media Hacks and Managing the Gray. I always enjoy them.

  6. It's interesting though, where Media Hacks comes from ... Julian Mitch and I used to go out for these lunches where we would talk about what was on our minds, about technology, about social media, about media in general. They were always these great, heated debates and discussions, we'd part ways all charged up. Mitch said he had the same feeling every time he got together with CC, Chris P and Chris B.
    And we often said: you know, we should record these lunches and post them somewhere.
    Mitch decided to make it happen.
    For me anyway, Media Hacks has continued to be this great, informal discussion with some of the smartest people I know working on the web; that's what's made it fun & useful for me, much more than thinking about audience etc.
    That is, it's captured and maintained that informal spirit, which gives it it's life, warts and Julien's F-bombs (and my occasional slip to profane as well). And that spontaneous nature is what keeps some listeners listening; is it so terrible if those listeners don't want to forward Hacks to colleagues because of the language? Some would say: audience is everything, you must grow your audience...But maybe not, maybe Media Hacks works exactly because people don't feel comfortable sending it along to colleagues? I mean, maybe that's not such a bad thing.
    I have no idea what the audience is for Hacks, but I do know that everyone who's ever mentioned it to me has been positive about it...which makes it worthwhile to me. That, and how much fun it usually is to record.

  7. David B. Thomas on

    Hugh, that's it exactly. It's up to you guys to decide if you care whether or not corporate people like me feel comfortable forwarding Hacks. I wrote this post because you guys sincerely asked the question. That being said, I would hate to see you change what you're doing.
    One day we're not going to care so much about this stuff, and social media is helping make that happen. We'll see that someone might drink a beer, go to a punk show, vote for the other party, swear and still be the hardest-working, most professional person around. It's helping us all face our own humanity, and that makes some people very uncomfortable.
    Thanks for commenting.

  8. Back in the sixties (rats! I promised I’d never say that again!), we refused to cut our hair, shave, wear a suit, put on “fake” courtesies, man, for fear of selling out. But youthful outrage and rebellion are something most of us have tucked into bed with our kids. With age comes something besides aching joints and lower expectations: the realization that (a) we are sometimes communicating inintended messages by how we look and sound, and (b) other people matter if we want to get something done.
    Anyone remember the Silicon Valley heyday when it was all about pushing technology? Remember selling computers by rattling off bits and megs? If the audience didn’t understand, well, tough. They should learn. In today’s more mature technology market, we listen to customers and create what people need, not just what we want. And we speak their language, to make sure they understand what and why.
    Ultimately, as Dave says, it’s all about what you want to accomplish. I’m not saying compromise our standards. But especially in social media, where the goal is to share information and help each other, isn’t it worth it to consider a broader audience?

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