Mind Your Language

Posted: | In: Events, The Oyster Club

Following yet another rant about swearing on social media, I am reminded of a blog I wrote a little while ago. Here it is, because I haven’t changed my mind…

Reading a delightful vintage book on Etiquette the other day reminded me of how the English language is constantly changing and developing. The book is written in a lexicon, and is very much “Of Its Time.” It is my belief that snobbery still remains not just in accent, but in word selection, as the aristocracy holds on to the last vestiges of what separates them from us, and prevents the upper class blending into the rest of the hoi polloi. With the family seat gone, and no one to doff their cap as Lord Tralala walks by, with chavs in Burberry, and brown in town, the way we speak really is one of the only ways to clearly define our past and indeed our future.

But as we lumber towards a egalitarian society  (gosh, it’s taking its time) where all men are equal, though some are more equal than others (thanks George) there seems little point in listing the words which instantly pigeon hole a person into certain categories.That said, I cannot help but mention here that I am not a huge fan of the use of “lounge” as anything other than a verb, and I am sorry, but a “couch” is where one pours out angst to a doctor  whose varying levels of sympathy are usually decided not by specific malady, but by time, with a strict fifteen minutes cut off; hardly long enough to get comfy. The alternative of course, is a quick dose of daytime TV to prove your own troubles are probably not so bad, after all.

The point of this little exercise is that I want to address the subject of swearing. People have extremely strong views on the topic. The truth of the matter is, we all do it. But which profanities are acceptable in public, and with what frequency?I am interested in the effect it has on me. Although I swear myself, I am affronted if someone constantly peppers their language with curses in my company, and then quite “girly” charmed when someone apologises for offending me. This is completely at odds with my desire for equality and the fact that so far, I have never heard a curse that I haven’t at some point used myself. Is it our last grip on a time gone by?

A little while back, a chap on Twitter said that he instantly unfollowed (now, there’s a new word) anyone who used swear words in their Tweets. I feel this is rather short sighted. Sometimes, using strong words can be effective and edgy. If there is a point to be made, a short explosive curse works wonders.

Let’s explore the appropriateness of using expletives in business meetings. No doubt, there are many of us who would suggest that there is never a time in professional life when cursing is acceptable. If, when meeting someone for the first time, that person uses bold language, it may insinuate a lack of respect, a poor command of vocabulary or an inability to control what comes out their mouth, suggesting they may lack discretion. But how about this idea? The inclusion of a mild swear word here and there can instantly create rapport, and suggest camaraderie. I have seen this done on several occasions. It’s actually very subtle and clever. Matching is a great way to connect, like bonding over a beer, or admiring each other’s shoes. It’s the spoken equivalent of when Prime Minister Blair took off his jacket and appeared in shirtsleeves. We’re in this together. Well Tony, perhaps we were, Once Upon A Time…

I spend a lot of time in the Professional Speaking world, and I have noticed that some speakers take great pains not to swear. In contrast, I know one particularly brilliant orator who warns his audience that there will be “colourful language.” His talks are full of passion, and I wouldn’t want him to change a single word.

Being a fan of the arts, I love the liberal use of colourful words in poetry and lyrics. Philip Larkin, who held the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, and was offered, but declined Laureate, wrote “This Be The Verse,” one of my favourite poems about parenthood. He could hardly have made the point by saying “They Sort Of Mess With Your Head, Your Mum and Dad.” Chaucer et al. would have had a hard time excluding profanities from their work, and I would hate to live in a sanitized world without rock music, and all the naughty words totally pivotal to song lyrics. It always amuses me when the radio blanks out the words, and my kids fill in the gaps.

Perhaps the point here is to be mindful of language, frequency of chosen words, and to watch out for the reactions it can provoke. With all things, less is often more. The point of good modern etiquette is to make those around you feel comfortable. This includes speaking freely, for we do not live in a puritanical society, and I would hate to see censorship override good common sense.

Sometimes when nothing else will do, we just have to !@£$ the @&$^% and &^$^%$*& while *&(+& off. Incidentally, some time ago, my son got into trouble for swearing at school. Of course, I was most concerned. However, my anxiety was soothed, once I had established that he used the particular word in perfect context, and with great aplomb.


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