Scott Hanselman

Profanity doesn't work

November 3, '11 Comments [118] Posted in Musings
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Docoumentation is apparently VERY important. Fucking important, in fact. I was perusing the Interwebs yesterday and stumbled on a new article from Zach Holman called Don't Give Your Users Shit Work. I was a little taken aback by the swear word in the title. I clicked around Zach's site, and found his Talks area and clicked on A Documentation Talk and the second slide dropped the F-bomb. Wow, really? I said to myself, is this how to connect with someone who is trying to learn about a technology? I was surprised to find swearing to up front and center on Zach's blog.

Is swearing in technology conference presentations appropriate? When did this start being OK? Swearing has always been a part of popular culture and certainly always been a part of technology and technology people. However, in my experience swearing has been more often an after work bonding activity, if at all. It's hanging with fellow coders in a pub after a long day's debugging. It wasn't a part of presentations and certainly not welcome in the boardroom.

I propose that David Heinemeier Hanson popularized swearing unapologetically, or at least brought it out in the open at large keynotes and presentations. David says:

...I’ve used profanity to great effect is at conferences where you feel you know the audience enough to loosen your tie and want to create a mental dog ear for an idea. Of all the presentations I’ve given, I’ve generally had the most positive feedback from the ones that carried enough passion to warrant profanity and it’s been very effective in making people remember key ideas.

As with any tool, it can certainly be misused and applied to the wrong audience. But you can cut yourself with a great steak knife too. Use profanity with care and in the right context and it can be f***ing amazing.

He rightfully notes that it's a tool used with care and isn't appropriate for all instances, but from what I've seen of DHHs talks as well as in pursuing Zach's (who is a lovely chap, by the way), it appears they believe it's a good tool more often than not.

Perhaps it's generational or cultural, but more and more a lot of new under-30 web techies drop the F-bomb and swear liberally in their presentations and slides. Is this the way young web technologists do business now?

I believe that having S*** and F*** in your conference slides or titles doesn't make you cool or professional, or a better coder. It makes you look crass. When is it appropriate and why is it appropriate when other things aren't?

A few years back there was a controversy when some sexually suggestive pictures were used at a popular technology conference in a database presentation. From Martin Fowler:

The main lines of the debate are familiar. Various people, not all women, lay the charge that the images and general tone was offensive. Such material makes women feel degraded and alienated. This kind of presentation would not be tolerated at most professional events.

Defenders of the presenter point out that the slides were humorous and no offense was intended.

Clearly everyone agrees that sexism has no place in technology presentations. They agreed before this incident and many re-declared their support for sexism-free presentations after.

However, many top presenters don't agree that words that are evocative of sex and feces are in fact not appropriate. They would argue these two words have transcended their original meaning and are now well-used as punctuation or that the F-word is useful as nine different parts of speech. Both of these arguments are demonstrably true, but there's so many other words to use. Is the linguistic usefulness of the F-word too tantalizing to give up? Martin mentions DDH using his own words:

David Heinemeier Hansson is happy to proclaim himself as an R rated individual and is happy to consign "professional" to the same pit to which he cast "enterprise".

Why so mean?I personally don't put the word professional in the same overused category as "enterprise." Professionalism is well understood, in my opinion and usual not up for debate. Perhaps swearing is appropriate on a golf course where the Sales Suits make deals, but it's not appropriate in business meetings, earnings calls, or technology presentations.

There's hundreds of thousands of perfectly cromulent words to use that aren't the Seven Dirty Words. Or even just the two words that evoke scatology or copulation. At least use some colorful metaphors or create a new turn of phrase. Shakespeare managed, thou frothy tickle-brained popinjay. Zounds.

However, I do recognize that swearing, or specifically the choice to swear in a public forum is stylistic. I wouldn't presume to ascribe intelligence or lack thereof based solely on swearing. To DHH and Zach Holman's credit, their swearing in presentations is a conscious and calculated choice.

Zach says, via Twitter:

I love words. And those words evoke a lot of emotion. I want presentations to be emotional. I want a story to be told...it's certainly a stylistic choice I've made (and connected with). I actually am fine with offending or alienating a few. Because I believe it lets me connect deeper with others.

And this last point is where Zach and I differ. While I'm known to swear in person occasionally, I don't swear on this blog or in presentations. In fact, when I did swear in a recent "off the record" podcast, many found it out of character and off-putting.

DHH on being arrogant Swearing in presentations or as a part of your public persona might be attractive to some technologists who admire your "passion" or "zeal" but there's no doubt that many others will find that kind of unnecessary coarseness turn off.

It's worth noting that DHH is Danish and it's been my experience all over the world that it's primarily Americans that are the most easily offended by the use of our own swear words. You'll often hear the F-bomb on even teenage television shows in many European countries and their movies are almost never censored for language.

Swearing in presentations isn't unique to DHH or Zach, and it's not unique to one technology or another. I'm just using them as an example. Both are reasonable and logical guys, so they both realize this is a difference in a opinion and not a personal attach. In fact, Rob Conery and are working on getting both fellows on the show to talk about Swearing, Connecting with your Audience and Professionalism sometime soon.

My question is, do swear words add as much as they subtract? Do they increase your impact while decreasing your potential audience? I believe that swearing decreases your reach and offers little benefit in return. Swearing is guaranteed to reduce the size of your potential audience.

As I've said before:

"Being generally pleasant and helpful isn't sugarcoating, it's being pleasant and helpful."

I appreciate and respect that profanity in presentations is a deliberate choice. You're cultivating a personal brand.

However, you take no chances of offending by not swearing, but you guarantee to offend someone if you do.

Better if it's a focused style, a conscious choice and all part of your master plan but it's not for me. I choose to blog, speak and teach without swearing. My message is clearer without these words.

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. I am a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Friday, November 04, 2011 12:03:10 AM UTC
Great post, I've personally never done it in a presentation but wouldn't be offended if someone did. I think if you really want to grab someones attentions then a profanity will work.
Friday, November 04, 2011 12:04:24 AM UTC
100% right. You have always to be polite, and you have to know when to use "special" words. Rude words don't make you more powerful, they only move the focus from what's important - your presentation.
Friday, November 04, 2011 12:10:01 AM UTC
I've generally found that swearing was a cheap way to try to connect and communicate. It's high fructose corn syrup speech. It's a cheap gimmick to evoke passion and a feeling of candid communication, but without expressing the idea in a way that speaks for itself.
Friday, November 04, 2011 12:11:49 AM UTC
Has anyone told you that you look a LOT like Mac from Always Sunny in Philadelphia? (I shit you not)
Friday, November 04, 2011 12:12:20 AM UTC
The purpose isn't simply about style or emotion, it's a social technique to create a feeling of belonging to a smaller 'in' crowd of more tolerant and truthful people.

When the audience are entertained by swearing, you are saying "We" are the young and brave truth-tellers, while "they" are the older generation who prefer to lie with smooth but empty words. "We" are not afraid of truth, even when it is ugly, while "they" are old and fearful.

If it offends some people, then this strengthens the effectiveness, demonstrating the existence of an 'outside' group strengthens the solidarity of the 'inside' group.

Of course, in reality it's all bullshit.
Friday, November 04, 2011 12:15:01 AM UTC
I recall my first exposure (decades ago) to Chaucer as read by the WASPiest professor ever to teach English Lit. I was stunned to hear such language coming out of his mouth. But I hear profanity everywhere these days and as much from women as from men. It no longer shocks me as it once did.
Friday, November 04, 2011 12:16:08 AM UTC
Well, I haven't worked at a place yet that didn't let the f-bombs flow relatively freely. Just my luck I guess.

Audience and context matter, if you're talking to a room of laid back hackers, it's going to be different then a corporate sponsored enterprise event.

Swearing for the sake of swearing is useless, but dropping a swear word to make people sit up and pay attention can be useful. And as Jon mentions it /can/ lower the invisible wall between speaker and audience.

"Hey this guy is /just/ like me..."

Case in point for the effective use of profanity: http://confreaks.net/videos/496-rubyhoedown2008-lightning-talk-tatft-test-all-the-f-in-time

Speaker personality, tone, as well as the audience and context of the talk all play a role as well.

I wouldn't agree to the blanket statement that profanity should be verboten (as I would to say... porn), but I would agree that it would always be the "safe" choice.
Friday, November 04, 2011 12:17:31 AM UTC
I do agree with what you are saying. Normally, I try not to use profanity, but I feel there is a time and place for everything. A few years back, I gave a talk about testing, named, "Testing All the F*(&#$ Time" The point was to cheerlead more developers into thinking about testing their code. I chose to use the F word constantly to make a point, not to offend. From what I can tell, it was pretty successful. Now when I reference that talk in public, I do say "test all the effin time"

As my children (and I) get older, I do reflect a little bit more on what I say. I choose my words a bit more carefully, and try to offend a little bit less. This doesn't mean I can't still get my point across, it just means I have be a bit more crafty when I'm in front of a crowd.

That being said, I would never single out someone's race, religion, sex, or sexual preference. That has no place in a public event.
Friday, November 04, 2011 12:19:11 AM UTC
Lol, as I was reading you post I saw an ad on the side of your blog by Clickatel claiming that they have no <bs> api's
Friday, November 04, 2011 12:19:25 AM UTC
If you need to use profanity to evoke emotion or any sense, you've failed your audience. You want to shock them? Do it with an idea.

I'm tired of 'professionals' using profanity and sexual imagery and explaining it away by saying "we're all adults here". It's cheap, shows you have no command of the language or your subject matter.

Like Bill Cosby says: "I don't need it - because I can M----F---- write!"
Dave
Friday, November 04, 2011 12:23:00 AM UTC
Well said, sir. You have my respect.
Marc Schluper
Friday, November 04, 2011 12:25:07 AM UTC
I would argue that the term "s**t work" is borderline. Does "crap work", "useless work" or "pointless work" work better? Does it properly convey the intention better?

I am not sure.

Personally, I would have avoided such sensationalism cause I find arguing about which words should or should not be used is a good way to detract from the real point which was important. (Google circles were great in theory, but introduced a nightmare of maintenance that is not sustainable long-term)

Friday, November 04, 2011 12:25:15 AM UTC
@Abe, the new season's overweight version? *zing*
Friday, November 04, 2011 12:31:15 AM UTC
Excellent post Scott! I don't mind sensationalism, when it is used ... sparingly ... it carries added emphasis and punch. When it's used frequently and carelessly ... which seems to be more often nowadays ... it catches me off guard, and turns me off to the rest of the presentation.
Friday, November 04, 2011 12:31:35 AM UTC
I often find that people swear when they can't think of a coherent response or argument. Instead of coming up with an adequate response they simply swear loudly and boisterously, hoping that the f-word is enough of an argument that you're wrong!

As a result I find most people who swear a lot have little else to say, and generally aren't worth listening to. If you can't make your point without swearing then you're a poor communicator.
Friday, November 04, 2011 12:32:36 AM UTC
I swear like a trooper is casual conversation, and I find the very idea that someone could be offended by a swear word absolutely bizarre.

Having said that, I agree with you 100%.

Maybe it's growing up with parents who are genuinely offended by swearing. Yes I find that bizarre but I've had decades of practice at using different language around my parents to what I use around friends. I have absolutely no difficulty moderating my language in a professional setting, and while I'd share an expletive-laden rant with a co-worker, I wouldn't do so in a meeting or presentation. Especially one involving management. Or clients. Or god help us, potential clients.

"You take no chances of offending by not swearing, but you guarantee to offend someone if you do."


Great summation.
Friday, November 04, 2011 12:34:12 AM UTC
It's a culturally specific thing, Americans seem to be much more offended by swear words, sex, etc. than other less conservative societies. So if you're American and offended just remember the rest of us do things differently.
user
Friday, November 04, 2011 12:34:26 AM UTC
fuck tһіs ѕһіt
Friday, November 04, 2011 12:37:34 AM UTC
"It's high fructose corn syrup speech."

Bravo, Jon! Brilliantly put.

Cusswords are a cop-out, IMO. If you can't find a way to bring emphasis to a point, or demonstrate your passion without a cussword, you're either not trying very hard, or you're not terribly creative.

Friday, November 04, 2011 12:38:25 AM UTC
People, especially public people (*cough* dhh) will always have excellent reasons and lofty sounding goals for why it's OK for them to debase themselves and lower the culture and class of an are they influence.

This is a selfish act because they don't consider who their influencing and the breadth of time that their influence will last.

And once you lower your standards, it's OK for the other guy and suddenly, "everyone's doing it so why don't I?" Until the only people who haven't debased themselves and still have class are left looking like plaid-tie and penny-loafer dweebs with no hip bone in their body.

It's sad to me how quick men are prone to act like boys in order to gain influence or improve their status at a cost they can't perceive until much farther down the road.

And programmers are already notorious for having no self respect, this only lowers the bar.
Friday, November 04, 2011 12:40:06 AM UTC
"The idea that no gentleman ever swears is all wrong. He can swear and still be a gentleman if he does it in a nice and benevolent and affectionate way."

- Mark Twain
Friday, November 04, 2011 12:40:55 AM UTC
On an additional point, if you had said damn, hell or bastard 50 years ago they would have been highly offensive words however now they are part of everyday conversation. Shit and fuck were offensive 20 years ago but aren't really anymore, that being said though i'm sure well into the seventies there were people that found "damn" offensive. I think "cunt" is the only english swearword left that still has any clout.
user
Friday, November 04, 2011 12:41:53 AM UTC
Does this mean you're going to stop using the word "poop" as a variable name, class name, and general go-to name for your talks? I think you're drawing a fine here - yet I also understand the point you're making.

There was a time when you could replace the word "fuck" with "suit" and "shit" with "tie" - my parents were fairly shocked that I wouldn't where either thing to work. They said it was unprofessional.

The difference is that I didn't offend anyone by *not* wearing a tie.

Finally - I think as parents you and I react quite strongly to the dirty dirties being tossed around. More than once I've told friends to can it when they let loose in front of my kids (my family too). People are thoughtless this way - and they're typically the same ones who would probably look sideways at you if your kid cut loose with "OH SHIT DAD!".

Anyway - love the article. Thought provoking. Can we record a podcast now?
Rob Conery
Friday, November 04, 2011 12:43:38 AM UTC
It depends on on behalf of who you're speaking. It most likely isn't appropriate for someone who speaks on behalf of Microsoft Corporation, but I think may work quite well for independent individual.

I personally use Czech equivalents of various ?-words in my talk when I want to stress something important and it works quite well and nobody ever complained. Well, maybe the important part of success is that there isn't anyone to complain to, since I'm independent developer and consultant ;-)

Maybe it also depends on what country you're in. I feel that in US, people are overly sensitive to ?-words in any kind of "official" context and totally insensitive to the in any "personal" context.

Considering some popular speeches of our Czech Minister of Finance or Minister of Foreign Affairs, some F-bomb in technical talk is nothing :)
Friday, November 04, 2011 12:47:09 AM UTC
I think people have the wrong idea. The problem is not that it offends some people, the problem is that we accept increasingly lower forms of speech and conversation. At some point we'll be grunting and scratching our armpits to make points and keep people's attentions.

Really,do we think so low of ourselves and our colleagues that the only way to effectively communicate with them is to be clowns and entertain them with base languages and gutteral caveman talk?

Have some respect for yourselves and your colleagues. Talk up to them. You may get good reviews if you act like an idiot and make people laugh at you, but you'll get much better reviews if you talk up to them and wow them with new ideas and thoughts.

Don't settle for less, and don't disrespect your audience.
Friday, November 04, 2011 12:50:20 AM UTC
Bang On Scott.

As many others have said I believe that the use of four letter words is a lazy use of the language.
Friday, November 04, 2011 12:54:44 AM UTC
Exactly, Chad. DHH and others think it's so neat to offend the suits, like they're the heros in a bad '80's hair band video where the loud music shocks the square oldsters.

Swear all you want, it doesn't hurt my ears.

The point is, when you swear in a public presentation, I (and others) will unconsciously have a similar reaction to reading a blog post that continuously mixes up "your" and "you're" - you may have some good ideas, but you look stupid.
Friday, November 04, 2011 1:02:33 AM UTC
I find that swear words distract me rather than evoke an emotion if used in the wrong context. If we continue using them in professional settings they will lose their power of evoking the feeling of intimacy or camaraderie they do now. Save them for where they are best put to use.
Friday, November 04, 2011 1:14:39 AM UTC
My question is, do swear words add as much as they subtract?


Maybe, but I'm not going to be blackmailed by the people who throw fits over swearing.

I also take issue with equating swearing to showing inappropriate images. Nine times out of ten, swear words don't evoke their original meaning.
Friday, November 04, 2011 1:15:27 AM UTC
Funnily enough, I was just remembering a video by the great Steven Fry on his views on swearing. I think he couldn't say it best.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_osQvkeNRM
Friday, November 04, 2011 1:25:47 AM UTC
Context is everything. In a "professional setting" such as those you listed I would avoid that kind of language but I think that's as obvious and worthless to point out as the "locker room" end of the spectrum. The middle is far more interesting. There are folks who I think have walked the line rather deftly (Steve Yegge's blog comes to mind, but that's clearly less formal than the shareholder meeting scenario). I also appreciated how you handled the podcast you mentioned above...there was sufficient warning heading into it and then hilarity ensued.

There are those who choose to overuse that kind of language and there are those who eschew that language out of a chasteful existence or even a sense of higher mindedness. They can all bite me.
Friday, November 04, 2011 1:26:51 AM UTC
In my mind, the curse words are in the same catagory as "smurf". We are in a technically exact profession. Why would vague, ambiguous, and imprecise words be acceptable?
Friday, November 04, 2011 1:27:33 AM UTC
I swear. I swear pretty regularly. In fact, if you observe me for an hour, I guarantee you will hear me drop at least one word that will offend someone. Why? Because those are the words I think in. That's my language. And I've made the conscious choice to allow my thoughts to be unfiltered and raw. Because the people who are going to be offended by the words I'm using instead of paying attention to what they mean are not people I want to be discussing things with, anyways.

Words are words. Who decides "shit" or "fuck" is offensive? You do. I don't believe words should be off-limits or censored, because that's not the kind of world I want to live in.

I love that you point out that not swearing carries no risks. Because I firmly believe if you're not risking anything, you're not gaining anything.
Friday, November 04, 2011 1:35:39 AM UTC
Swearing is a delicate art, and one should always be cognizant of his surroundings when putting such wonderfully flexible and colorful language to use.

It is very important for me to live and work in places where profanity is accepted and practiced often. I would not work somewhere where I would feel like I'd have to restrain myself or risk standing out as "that offensive guy". Everyone has their own tolerances, and I am well aware that not everyone is comfortable with swearing. If you're one of those people, then that's fine; I do not want to work with you. But if someone I don't know is within earshot at the office, I will limit my language appropriately. I would also never use any of the more controversial words during a presentation to a room full of strangers. Moreover, I am disturbed when I see someone else do it. It indicates a lack of regard for the audience.

As I sit here and ponder my use of profanity, it occurs to me that I follow some very specific--if somewhat arbitrary--rules:

I *never* swear in direct written communication (e.g. e-mail). It actually bothers when others swear in e-mail, and I find this applies even to people around whom I would otherwise feel comfortable swearing. However, it bothers me a lot less than poor spelling and grammar. The worst thing you could do when e-mailing me is use nonsense like "b4", "ur", etc. Your image will be forever tarnished in my mind.

The same rules apply to blogging. They do not, however, apply to more casual and indirect modes of communication like Twitter. I swear quite often on Twitter, and it feels appropriate given that it's meant to be an opt-in system in which people spout off whatever brief thoughts are on their minds at the moment. For such mediums, my stance on profanity is simple: if you don't like it, I don't care.

I recall a conversation I had with my father about six months ago in which he advised me to tone down my swearing on Twitter. He suggested that I might alienate potential employers. I said, "good." I intentionally project the same kind of language on Twitter that you would hear come out of my mouth in my everyday environment--it's honest, and it serves as an excellent filter. If someone is concerned with the language of my personal Twitter account and they cannot see the stark contrast with the language on my blog or LinkedIn profile, then they are not someone that I want to work with.
Mike Strobel
Friday, November 04, 2011 1:36:51 AM UTC
Pretty interesting POV.

I find it pretty odd how much you care about these Words and all the commenters too. I for one would not rate a presentation by the words that are use, but how much value it has for me, how entertaining it is, how much insight and knowledge it provides for me and how much respect i have for the person that tries to tell me something.
(This doesn't mean i would be ok with direct offenses to some group of people or gender, but i think this is not really the point of your post anyway. There are always people nobody should listen to. That shouldn't be something even necessary to mention.)

So in your case lets talk about all your jokes you make, why are you using them? Because they are making your presentation entertaining and making people listen to what you are trying to tell them.
But what if, i would know that you couldn't tell me a thing, that the jokes are the only thing that is great about your presentations. I guess i would get annoyed pretty fast. <Win> + <Tab> + <funny sounds> can be really funny the first time, but if its the only thing you are good at it would be more like "i cannot take that guy seriously" and leave or turn off your presentation.
That is thankfully not the case for your presentations, but does it really make a difference which path you choose to entertain the audience? I would say no, but i really matters that the balance between entertainment and value is good.
I would say it's about the first 10 minutes, if you didn't get my attention at that point, i would not listen to your next one, and it doesn't really matter if you swear or making jokes to get it, more about how much i realized at that point that you know something that i don't, but would like to know or more about it.
And i would say that for jokes applies the same rule set as for swear words, jokes about the wrong thing can be offensive too, if not even more offensive.

So ultimately it's much more about respect, at least for me, as about the way how the presenter tries to get my attention. Also the reason to like watching some people more than others, can be either thing. Your presentations are highly entertaining and fun to watch while getting a lot of insight and knowledge, but sometimes it feels also pretty good if someone swears in public to state the obvious, that there are ways and things that you really should not do.
Friday, November 04, 2011 1:37:52 AM UTC
A similar discussion was raised over the use of swearing in interviews. Sean McCown, known now as one of the Midnight DBAs, wrote this piece back in 2005 at SQLServerCentral.com. Definitely folks on both sides of the argument. BTW, Sean (nor his wife) have backed off on this position, as is evident by their webcasts, the event they hold at the PASS Summit, etc.

http://www.sqlservercentral.com/articles/Miscellaneous/howtomessupaninterview/2113/
Friday, November 04, 2011 1:39:41 AM UTC
I've always judged when TV shows start going downhill by when they start to incorporate sex in every episode. It means they are running out of creativity, and losing the ability to keep people interested, and they know it.

I judge presentations and conversations the same way. If you can't keep me interested with the content, and have to result to emotionally responsive words or racy pictures to get me involved, then it's most likely because what you have to say just really isn't of significant value on its own merits...

Those kinds of situations prompt me to walk away for something better.
Craig
Friday, November 04, 2011 1:42:26 AM UTC
It offends me 1000x more people are who offended for other people and euphemisms like "s***" and "f***", YOU ARE SAYING THE WORDS IN YOUR BRAIN!! stop this retarded nonsense.

I also laughed alot with this:

"Clearly everyone agrees that sexism has no place in technology presentations"

Really? In what pompous puritanical world do you live? of course there is sexism in technology presentations because a person with a d*** or a c*** created that presentation.

This self repressive "professional attitude" is way more damaging and effective hiding sexism and racism than a slide with "FUCK YOU" written on it.
Friday, November 04, 2011 1:43:39 AM UTC
Nice post, but I'm not sure what world you live in where you can see a presentation on (let's just randomly pick) Sharepoint and not expect to hear the words "f**king", "piece", "of" and "sh*t"
Joe
Friday, November 04, 2011 1:43:43 AM UTC
I swear a lot, and have since I was a teenager. I curtail it (to a increasingly small degree) at work and (much more) around the kids.

But I think you're mistaken if you think that crassness is some thing The Kids These Days are doing. As I mentioned on twitter, Shakespeare was pretty vulgar at times (see the "country matters" reference in Hamlet - the emphasis is on the first syllable).

It is very contextual. Scott, you're trying to reach as many people as possible, and, let's face it, most of them are corporate-types. DHH most likely doesn't give a shit how many people he reaches - he has his loyal following/cult well established. He's *not* aiming at corporate-types.

I even swore in my last (successful) job interview - the environment was relaxed and I felt comfortable being myself. That feeling was a decent part of why I took the job.

Ben
Friday, November 04, 2011 1:56:58 AM UTC
If a speaker's goal is to alienate most of the women in the room he should go ahead and litter his presentation with profanity. I can't speak for all female developers, but since there are already so few of us you might like to hear the viewpoint from one of them.
Friday, November 04, 2011 1:58:07 AM UTC
@ChadMyers You have a great point. I believe that because of people's naturally tendency to exaggerate, they feel they need to come up with words to say that give a bigger pop. Thus, pejoration occurs and people resort to words with a higher shock value. Presently that is profanity. Eventually words will have to be modified or created just to have a word or phrase that will shock people.

I believe that speaking appropriately and with a sincere desire to build people up is the best way to keep people interested without denigrating yourself or society.
Friday, November 04, 2011 2:07:25 AM UTC
As usual - a great post Scot. You are very right in saying that profanity is not needed in public speaking or presentation. In this part of the world swearing is social taboo that is not well taken in any sort of conversation and imagine if i swear on a talk - i will be booed at and will be kept away. So far have done close to 15+ public speaking and never ever did i need to swear on something. When we do a dev talks over coffee or something yes there is a lot of F word exchanged on everything almost :) but certainly i dont see swearing in a talk is cool.

Love the way you put things into perspective.

regards
Lohith
@kashyapa
Friday, November 04, 2011 2:16:47 AM UTC
This is a shocking opinion piece from someone that works at Microsoft. F-Bombs are common currency in the halls and meetings. The higher up the food chain the more likely you drop them in written communications. Its the most profanity laden place I've ever worked. Sure, not in customer presentations but man c'mon. For anyone here to complain about profanity is like asking the dude if he has to swear so much.
Droids
Friday, November 04, 2011 2:16:52 AM UTC
I think it is generational. I would bet shareholder meetings among younger investors have plenty of profanity in them. This comment from Rob Connery above sums it up pretty well:

There was a time when you could replace the word "fuck" with "suit" and "shit" with "tie" - my parents were fairly shocked that I wouldn't where either thing to work. They said it was unprofessional.


To those of my generation, it doesn't make you look crass. It doesn't make you look anything. Saying something is fucking awesome is no different than italicizing the awesome or adding an exclamation mark.

So yes, if one cares about one's image with the older crowd, some caution might be advised. But saying you better keep your language clean to satisfy the older crowd feels as idiosyncratic and nitpicky as saying you'd better use Helvetica in your slides to satisfy the typography nerds, or you'd better make sure your blog posts use valid semantic XHTML 1.1 to satisfy the markup sticklers.

I also think those saying swearing is some kind of lower form of discourse are really obfuscating the issue; there's nothing inherently"lower" about adding emphasis with a "fucking" prefix versus adding it with italics.
Friday, November 04, 2011 2:41:41 AM UTC
I really liked the podcast with Jeff and didn't find it off-putting at all. It was behind the scenes, taking the necktie off, letting your hair down sort of podcast. The bleeps were the off-putting part.

As far as presentations go, I think it comes down to "know your audience." I personally wouldn't do a presentation with that language because I know how sensitive some people are and as soon as they see it, they stop listening. But in person or on the phone, I swear quite a bit around people I am comfortable with including other devs and my boss.
Jason
Friday, November 04, 2011 2:43:16 AM UTC
Totally agree, Scott.
Although I'm not sure if this snapshot of Scott's presentation video qualify as profanity on a slide or not.
It's minute 45:45 of Oredev Keynote on Information Overload and Managing the Flow: Effectiveness and Efficiency
Friday, November 04, 2011 2:44:04 AM UTC
Here's the real question:
When was the last time someone was looked down on for avoiding swearing?

As to my personal view of a presenter, use of vulgarities, to me, demonstrates a distinct inability to convey a message without resorting to the cheap and trite. But then, I will only use vulgarities in times of truly profound emotion, and even then I have a tendency to use lighter ones or some in a different language. ("Merde" is my personal favorite, especially since I don't speak French). If you catch me using an English vulgarity chances are that you will have already noticed a somewhat heightened emotional state anyway.
Friday, November 04, 2011 2:51:59 AM UTC
Well expressed.
Friday, November 04, 2011 2:58:34 AM UTC
Sean McCown's piece, linked in a comment above, I found interesting. He basically advocates swearing in interviews, as a sort of test of compatibility with the workplace (if they don't hire him because he swears, he doesn't want to work there anyway). But he vigorously warns against saying "God bless you" or any other overt religious expression.

Got me thinking. I would never swear in an interview, I think it's foolish, unprofessional, and has no upside. But as an interviewer, whilst I might feel an interviewee who swore was unprofessional, I would never even consider hiring someone who proselytized at me in an interview. I would be flat-out terrified of the sort of mindset that thought that was appropriate behaviour.
Friday, November 04, 2011 3:10:59 AM UTC
Hmm, where's the magic list of words you shouldn't use? Is everyones list the same? Why bucket words at all into some kind of special 'bad' words category? They're all just words. This is all just pointless rabble-rabble-ing on a subject of no significance.
Dude
Friday, November 04, 2011 3:29:11 AM UTC
Scott,

I mostly agree with you. I personally do not use swear words and prefer not to hear them. I am not offended if they are used sparingly in a presentation or when someone talks; but if it is excessive I will get turned off to their message.

However I do not like to hear swearing when it is purposefully used to offend someone or is directed at someone, especially in anger.

There is someone that works near me (not a developer) that tends to throw a bunch of nasty swear words around after someone asks him to do something (of course after the requester has left) which he deems a waste of his time or stupid or annoying. He just swears out loud, not in a conversation with anyone. This bothers me, he comes across as immature and cowardly and loses my respect. If he doesn't like his work there are more constructive ways to deal with it.

I look forward to listening to the podcast.

Maggie
Friday, November 04, 2011 3:34:07 AM UTC
Droids - That's not been my experience. I work from home, of course.
Scott Hanselman
Friday, November 04, 2011 3:34:59 AM UTC
Nice post & great comments.
Joe: Loved the SharePoint comment!...so so very true.
David: Interesting how we are freaked out by a little religion but some profanity is probably ok....but I gotta agree with 100%.
Charles
Friday, November 04, 2011 3:53:43 AM UTC

Totally acceptable and expected. It never even registered with me that there was anything potentially offensive in Holman's article from the time I read it yesterday until I saw your article here. Didn't even cross my mind.

What is offensive, though, is that you conflate the sexually harassing presentations that keep popping up at conferences with the swearing that is part of normal day to day office (that is, professional) language. By painting the two with the same "it makes you less professional and persuasive" brush, you really belittle the importance of removing harassing material from tech events.

I suppose you can argue that these authors' presentations overuse swearing to the point of its losing its force, but I think that's clearly not the case, especially given your overreaction here—and in any case, that's a matter of taste, judgement, and effective communication, not appropriateness.

And come on, this is the Internet. Your bowdlerizing your own article about profanity with "S*** [sic]" and "F*** [sic]" really does nothing more than scream out "here is profanity, look at me." Leaving the words uncensored would have been so much less disruptive. Frankly, this is my experience of this discussion as a whole: The original article didn't focus my attention on profanity at all; this one does.

Hello
Friday, November 04, 2011 4:07:41 AM UTC
I think this is a valid question from one presenter (and a well-respected, popular, and admired one at that) to the public and to industry fellows. I would assume that most who read this blog are also the types whoattend such presentations, at least occasionally.

For myself, I agree that profanity IS a tool. I present for work from time to time, and there are instances where the properly placed swear word can drive a point home, or wake an audience up very effectively, with minimal offense. But it is important to know your audience.

Frivolously populating a presentation (or every presentation) with profanity makes the tool less effective.

On the other hand, it appears that the "industry" has become a more popular career choice, with greater opportunity for entry. Also, the generation who came of age with the internet and high-performance personal computers has now entered the workforce, inclusing the software development industry. It has indeed become a "cool" profession, and there are any number of young coders who in fact do seem to cultivate a "hip, slick, and cool" personal brand. Often this involves swearing. AMong other things . . .
Friday, November 04, 2011 4:18:29 AM UTC
Meh. In England we have roger mellies profanasuarus as a swearing bible. Highly recommended in any office as a reference book by the way.

Must be an American thing not liking swearing. I like some of the Anglo Saxon roots and history of some of the profanity.

Doesn't bother me. In fact to be honest it adds humour and may I point you to Stephen fry's ideas on swearing and language.

Bigger things in life to get annoyed about to be honest but each to their own.
John smith
Friday, November 04, 2011 4:20:30 AM UTC
I'm also of the camp that considers it lazy but I don't think it's offensive. I like it better when people use thinly-veiled metaphors or couch it behind lame euphemisms. Like saying "Oh Bother!" a la Winnie the Pooh or using the PG-13 equivalents of Johnny Dangerously. Or in print, by using &*%$# symbols. To me, these are much more entertaining and I always appreciate when someone makes an effort to play with language rather than relying on the relative safety of swearing to define oneself.

You be the judge:
Option 1: Look at all these fucking choices
Option 2: I haven't seen this much selection since the last family reunion
Friday, November 04, 2011 4:34:54 AM UTC
I grew up in a very strict environment, until I started working at a restaurant. All of a sudden, there were people using "those" words all the time! Movies, music, books - these words started popping up everywhere. Over time, I began using some. Then, some friends were videoing a conversation, and they played it back for me. I sounded ridiculous. That was the turning point for me. Once I got back into environments where the expectations are different (church, work, etc.), the words fell away.

Then, I joined the military. Though I haven't gone back to using the language, it doesn't faze me at all to hear it repeatedly. I was deployed with some Navy guys who seemed to be laboring under the impression that, if you didn't have another adjective, just add f'in. (One of them once asked the other "Hey, can you f'in pass me that f'in ketchup?") Stand-up comedy also doesn't bother me. Hanselminutes 267 was fine to me.

I tend to agree that those words are mostly throwaway words, words that people use when they don't have others to suffice. I know S is now pretty much defined as both fecal matter AND something of poor quality, and F can refer to copulation or, in its -ing form, an adjective that is a synonym with "really."

That leaves the question of those who are offended. My wife and I rented one of the Lethal Weapon movies on VHS (does that give away how long ago that was?), and she asked if we could turn it off within the first 5 minutes due to the profanity in the dialogue. I hadn't even noticed. Do the makers of that movie care that she has never seen their work? In the grand scheme of things, they probably don't; they got our money for the rental, and I doubt her not going to see any sequels would make or break their success.

It's tough to make that leap to business, though, and the comments above about "on behalf" are spot-on. Businesses lose customers and employees to so many other things as it is, why risk alienating them? I do Java in my day job, and have done PHP and C# in my night job. None of the documentation or tutorials on those languages have had any profanity whatsoever. As I write some programs used by churches and other faith-based organizations, that's a good thing. If I have to pass one of my applications to some one there (or sell it with extensibility baked in), I won't have to worry about sending them to the doc sites.

Finally, before someone decides they're just flat-out willing to offend, it might be useful to take a few minutes and ponder WHY it is offensive. Offense probably could be categorized as shock ("I can't believe he said that!"), professional judgment ("That's not very professional"), personal offense ("He shouldn't say that to me!"), or religious offense ("Doesn't he know God says that's not right?!"). Which of those groups do you want to exclude from your target audience or client list? It's a free country, after all; people are free to talk how they like, and others are free to change their behavior due to that speech. For me, I don't want to exclude any of those, so I don't use that language anywhere.

(There are other directions I could take this, but it's probably long enough too long already, and I'm sure you don't want a literal religious war here... heh)
Friday, November 04, 2011 4:35:36 AM UTC
I tend to agree with you.

I think swearing is a cop out to grab attention without doing the hard work of being compelling, passionate and persuasive without it; bit of a crutch I'm afraid.

There is obviously a reward for doing it or people wouldn't bother.
Friday, November 04, 2011 4:38:30 AM UTC
I'm definitely not a proponent of swearing, and I often turn off music or v shows that are full of gutter mouths.

That being said, the ONLY words of a presentation that stick in my head ( from 4 years ago) are the words of DHH. "if you want to make money, you have to charge an F***ing price. "
Friday, November 04, 2011 4:48:32 AM UTC
I'm Danish as well, but I lived in the U.S. for a couple of years growing up and I've now lived in SoCal for the past 5 years as well.

My opinion is that this is in very large part cultural. Most Americans simply can not appreciate how non-offensive the "f-word" or similar words are outside of the U.S.

Sure, it's cursing. That may or may not be frowned upon depending on the circumstances, but those oh-so horrible words that we can't even type out while discussing them: just another swear word. Neither more nor less offensive than so many others. In fact in Danish, I'd argue that several actual Danish swear words carry a bit more oomph than a mere fuck which is more or less the equivalent of a damn it! in English.

Personally I find the American attitude odd, but I've learned to accept it and it has even rubbed off on me a bit. What I still find odd though, and can't help rebel against, is how even a discussion involving these words often doesn't actually contain the words themselves. Just look at the comments on this post: most commenters self-censor along the lines of f*** instead of simply writing fuck. It's all right to say fudge even though everybody knows exactly what you meant. Actually saying or writing fuck: outrageous! Now that's just strange.
Philip H
Friday, November 04, 2011 5:51:24 AM UTC
Eye of the beholder, man. And also: golden cage. Applies to you.

There's no one ideal that everyone agrees upon. And everyone comes from a different environment.

When managing a group of programmers/coders, you make sure they work well together. If they all cure like sailors, then so be it.

I'm actually pretty bothered by this belief that people who use swearwords should be shunned for some reason. As if they're not normal. Even people who like to approach people on an individual basis and work with different personalities, get offended when they hear even a slight curseword.

Cursing has long since lost it's old shock value. You can very easily tell if someone means to single you out and offend you or not.

And the worst part about this entire thing is that it's a debate about semantics. You can call someone stupid and people will be all like "well that's your opinion and you're entitled to it". But then you call someone a dumb fuck, and suddenly it's like you broke the Geneva convention. And it basically means the same thing.

Like I said, cursing has lost it's shock value. You might say it's not the same and it's actually worse, but then you'd be lagging behind about 15 years or so.
Friday, November 04, 2011 5:58:06 AM UTC
In the photography world, there's a saying that if someone is complaining about the film grain or digital "noise" in a photo, then it must've been a boring image (or they wouldn't have found that to be the most important thing).

I wonder if a similar scenario is in play: if the most memorable thing about a presentation is an obscenity, the presentation probably wasn't offering a very notable idea or topic.
Friday, November 04, 2011 6:03:16 AM UTC
Two things come to mind when I endure the profane:

1) Cursing evokes the scent of poor education, or an education wasted; lack of education invites the stain of poor judgement; poor judgement betrays trustworthiness. Who trusts an uneducated, ill-spoken fool?

2) If your (or my) presentation is legitimately demanding of attention, it will stand delivery in mono-tonal, dry prose. If not, adding "color" simply distracts the audience from something more deserving.

I disagree that being professional requires being pleasant, though. Many, many useful and worthy assholes have blessed this Earth.
Friday, November 04, 2011 6:32:05 AM UTC
To claim that swearing is generational is accepting that we demand less of newer generations and as Chad rightly points out, we are just lowering our class, our standards and our education.

There are many words and ways you can express passion and emotion. Use profanity in presentations is merely surfacing the lack of creativity.
Friday, November 04, 2011 6:57:59 AM UTC
Worrying about the how a message is communicated is peripheral to what is communicated and ultimately not worth worrying about. The original message could be in French and it doesn't matter as long as the message eventually gets across.

Keeping a swear jar at an office doesn't get emails written.
Friday, November 04, 2011 7:20:59 AM UTC
I stopped listening to hanselminutes because of the profanity in one of the pre-recording.

I understand that officially it probably isn't part of the podcast, but I just can't take it.

I like the friendly shanselman.
Friday, November 04, 2011 7:21:33 AM UTC
I think you're being a bit judgmental. There are many different reasons a coder might feel the need for a curse word. If you stub your toe, you probably make some sort of nonsense utterance. For many people, it would be a swear word. If you find yourself 1 day from GA and a bunch of Sev As crop up, I suspect you might actually be slightly more upset than you were when you stubbed your toe. So why are you using less severe diction?

For most of the people I know, swearing is a completely natural tool. When you swear about your a topic in your profession it conveys to your listener that you care at least as much about the topic as you did your stubbed toe. Witty reparte conveys intelligence, cursing conveys passion, dedication, and the willingness to put your professionalism on the line. It's a clear and concise way of demonstrating that you are "all in" on a topic.

It's just different expectations. You have a family, and probably want to avoid teaching your kids about cursing (and what all those naughty words mean) this early.

It's not possible though, and not wise, to be pleasant and polite all the time. It's disingenuous, and a little bit of authenticity and goes a long way.

On another point, I'm not terribly impressed with the conflation of sexism and cursing either, especially with sexism as the after-note. Curse words rarely mean anything, other than an attempt to very quickly evoke a particular emotion. Sexist behavior can drive an entire gender away from an industry. I'd far rather my coworkers cursed like a bunch of sailors than compared me to an alien.

On the other hand, sexist curse words aren't my favorite either. ;-)
Friday, November 04, 2011 7:49:30 AM UTC
Excellent post as always.

The problem is that every time you use a swearword it looses power (and if you do it in a presentation the power loss is much greater).

You can see the effect in many languages where profanity is so common that if you want to catch attention you have to use a *very* bad word otherwise it goes unnoticed.

It's a vicious circle that leads to language impoverishment over the years.
Friday, November 04, 2011 7:52:14 AM UTC
I'm Mr McSweary in my social life. I sometimes wish I wasn't, and I make a concious effort not to... but having grown up in a part of England where every second word from everyone's mouth is "Fuck", it's hard to shake the habbit.

Additionally, part of my humour is to use as offensive a word as possible to describe a comical situation, or just to shock someone in to laughing at something... but its not always appropriate and it has its place.

Personally, I'm not offended by swearing, nor am I offended by racism, prejudice or bigotry, as long as they're said in jest / tongue in cheek. As soon as someone crosses that line... as soon as they base any actual beliefs on those comments (or, in this context, someone swears with malice or intent to upset an individual or group), it's not funny any more; it's simply ignorant.
Friday, November 04, 2011 8:43:45 AM UTC
I agree that in the US people are more easily offended by swearing then in Europe, however...
...I'm an under 30 (just) and I myself would not be comfertable swearing during a presentation. I might even be slighty offended if someone else would do that, depending on context.
It might not be a big issue if it's only vocal, but putting it on a slide or in code is just wrong. Don't do it. Find a more intelligent way to get some attention.
Friday, November 04, 2011 8:59:16 AM UTC
I'm french. I can absolutely not imagine a french presentation where the equivalent of F*** You is written on slides, or used by the speaker.
as you write :

[...] it's been my experience all over the world that it's primarily Americans that are the most easily offended by the use of our own swear words.

I think the fact that English swear words are not in my native language is why they don't offend me so much.They don't and will never have the same strong anchored meaning that the same swear words have in French.
Since English is the language in conferences and technology in general, maybe that's a reason why we see them more often. It might be that they don't "seem" too harsh for non-native english speaker.
This seem to comfort my idea :

You'll often hear the F-bomb on even teenage television shows in many European countries and their movies are almost never censored for language.

Friday, November 04, 2011 9:20:22 AM UTC
Head-shaking and asking myself if you have any more FIRSTWORLD PROBLEMS?
Friday, November 04, 2011 10:45:02 AM UTC
I would not say 'we Europeans' are less easily offended by swearing. However it is true that most of the Europeans do not have English as their mother tongue, and as a consequence are less easily offended by English strong language.

When I'm working on site for a French customer of ours, nobody even notices when I occasionally drop a 's**t' when investigating some obscure bug, but they do look up when I use the French word.

I'd say the context matters. And of course, in a professional environment, I think there are enough alternatives in any language to make your point.
Friday, November 04, 2011 11:33:41 AM UTC
I think that for the under-30 crowd, the use of profanity in a professional setting can be (note: I don't say "should be") used as a form of jarring superlative to underscore a certain point. Personally, I'd never use f**k during a presentation, but I don't mind hearing it in one and in some cases admire the bold use.

That said, they are a tool -- not a style -- and like any tool, they can be used wrongly and they can be overused. When the attitude of "bold" or "epic" meets the attitude of "colloquial" or "modern", I think you'll find the use of profanity.

But the key, as always, is to know your audience. By swearing so often and so publicly, I think Zach has made a decision about what type of professionals he wishes to communicate/associate with on a daily basis -- specifically that they're not your standard, established professionals with typical cultural rules. That might work for him, and it very well may work against him, but it's a decision he seems to be fine with.
Friday, November 04, 2011 12:23:35 PM UTC
In my opinion swearing is beautiful only when it's off the cuff, if it's too planned it loses its charm
Friday, November 04, 2011 12:27:45 PM UTC
I once used sh*t (written exactly like that, with asterisk) in a Humanities paper at high school. It did not go down well. The lesson I learned from my teacher was that there is ALWAYS a better, more eloquent and more effective way to get your point across unless you are writing prose or poetry, and even then the use (or over-use) of swear words can often indicate a lack of imagination.

When it comes to non-fiction, unless someone is being quoted, the use of swear words just comes off as immature if not abrasive (or crass, as you stated yourself). Not only that, but it doesn't add value, especially not in the domain of technology (we're not discussing English Language text books here), and if something isn't adding value, what is it doing there?
Friday, November 04, 2011 1:11:08 PM UTC
"There's hundreds of thousands of perfectly cromulent words to use that aren't the Seven Dirty Words."

This sentence is where you finally lost me. I didn't agree with you before that, but this is where I definitelky disagreed.

Essentially, that is saying that these seven words are "special." They're not. They're words. Just like any other words. Some words are more mundane. Some words are more harsh or extreme. But they're words all the same. There's nothing more "special" about them. They should not be put in some forbidden or generally frowned upon collection of words.

I do agree that people tend to overuse them. But I also think that people tend to overreact to them. And I think there's probably a bit of cause and effect going back and forth there. Both sides are somewhat wrong and need some readjustment in their lives.
Tim
Friday, November 04, 2011 1:57:37 PM UTC
Equating sexism with profanity demonstrates that you completely fail to understand what's wrong about sexism. Here's a clue: in sexism, someone is being exploited.
Friday, November 04, 2011 2:12:24 PM UTC
I definitely shy away from using swear words, not just in presentations, but even in everyday speech. I honestly don't understand the need for it, other than to get a cheap laugh. I doubt I pass a dozen or so swears per year, on average. Then again, it doesn't really bother me when other people swear, unless they overdo it, then it destroys pretty much any message they are trying to deliver.

What bothers me far more is the use of the word 'like'. It has become a parasite word in the English language, and it drives me nuts to hear statements such as:

"Like, you know, like this is like so like great, you know?"

I think that "F***, you know, f*** this is f*** so f***ing great, you know?" actually bothers me less.
Friday, November 04, 2011 2:50:50 PM UTC
hey you kids, get off of my lawn!
Friday, November 04, 2011 2:59:35 PM UTC
Sheesh Scott, going on the record advocating being classy and not crass, and on the internet of all places? Are you trying to create a tear in the fabric of the universe?

Belligerence is the new empowerment, maybe you didn't get the memo. The more loud, self-interested, insensitive and rude you are, the more important you are. It's a shortcut.
Friday, November 04, 2011 3:01:08 PM UTC
Yeah, what's up with the millenials and their use of profanity? I get taken aback when son, a recent college grad with an well-above-average vocabulary, gets together with his friends and they drop f-bombs as if it were some kind of rhetorical blitzkrieg.

When I was in school in NYC back in the day, I worked nights in a trendy nightclub. The club was famous for its regularly changing art installations. I was on the lighting and construction staff. I worked with one woman in particular, from the upper east side, and she used profanity non-stop. It was if this somehow gave her credibility with us working class stiffs. It didn't. F-bombs falling from a Long Island lockjaw are a piffle.

Too many people use gutter language because they truly don't know any better. And it always dismays me when those who ought to know better resort to the worst of our language.
Friday, November 04, 2011 3:02:40 PM UTC
Swearing doesn't drive home a point or make me remember something, it actually does the opposite for me. It distracts me from what the person is saying. It's just not a part of my day to day choice to use those words. In a talk I'd probably tolerate a few departures, but if it were constant, I would leave. In reading, I don't tolerate it at all. If I were to see it, I would just quit reading it and find my information some place else.
Friday, November 04, 2011 3:05:29 PM UTC
How about this, swearing is like:

throw new Exception("Damn!");
/* or */
throw new Exception("F U!");

When what you really mean is:

throw new OperationException("I really wish that that did not happen!");
/* or */
throw new ArgumentException("Not with that you don't!", "Attitude");
Friday, November 04, 2011 3:24:05 PM UTC
Scott is not really talking about swearing or profanity, which involve bringing God into a conversation in a less than salutary fashion. What’s being discussed the use of vulgar language (or ‘common’ speech). It makes sense for rational people to use rational language rather than increase the level of noise. Cromulent indeed.
Friday, November 04, 2011 3:57:29 PM UTC
Sorry - gotta call BS on this.

Swearing is a tool. A tool to put emphasis behind words. The only reason to hold back is so that you don't dilute the ability of said words to continue to mean emphasis.

You have to ask yourself - who are we protecting by not cursing? Certainly not most execs - they curse all the time. Kids? Please - I assure you they are hearing these words every day. You can pretend that we are still in the 1950s, when people didn't curse in public, when everyone went to Church on Sunday, and when people generally were all moral and good. But the more you decide that the world should be like that, the more frustrated you will be, because not only is it not, but frankly, it never was!

Just accept it as part of our language. Personally, I have much larger targets for my outrage than someone using the word shit. If curse words make you so mad that you would quit listening to a podcast, I think that would say far more about you than it does the podcast.

The really sad part of this post, however, is the attempt to put the use of curse words in the same bucket of activity as the use of sexual imagery in presentations. OMFG! Can't think of two more different things. One is mere language, the other works involves objectification of women in a manner that alienates women from technology. The other assumes we still stick with some old, patriarchal notion that women should be shielded from the "rough man talk" curse words.
Friday, November 04, 2011 4:21:45 PM UTC
It's worth noting that DHH is Danish and it's been my experience all over the world that it's primarily Americans that are the most easily offended by the use of our own swear words. You'll often hear the F-bomb on even teenage television shows in many European countries and their movies are almost never censored for language.


Having been to Europe, I think you are right on with this statement. However, I think it is important to note that this is not a bad thing. I've seen so much of the attitude that American's are just too sensitive to things such as swearing and nudity. Why is it that American's must bend over backwards to accept the cultural norms of others when it comes to things such a swearing? We must try not to be offended even though the culture in which many Americans have been raised says that this is an offensive thing. Yet those who do the swearing feel no compunction to respect the culture or beliefs of those that are listening to them. This idea that I must respect your culture and beliefs but you have no obligation to try and respect me is just plain arrogance. The humble approach would be to realize that the world does not revolve around your culture and way of thinking and try to appeal to the least common denominator. No one has ever been offended for the lack of swearing within a presentation.

On the inverse side, I assume there are things that Americans do that would be offensive to Europeans, for instance. If one is giving a presentation in Europe maybe he should try to respect the culture of those who are listening and abstain for what might be viewed as offensive. Really, it all just a matter of respecting others and maybe putting yourself second for a change.
Davin Studer
Friday, November 04, 2011 4:31:57 PM UTC
Despite being a little older (at least compared to standard technology convention crowds) and also being a speaker at several such conferences a year, I can't say I agree with you on this point, though I've also noticed the trend and was a little surprised by it the first time I did.

Conferences come in different shapes and forms and laying down a rule that says "swearing is always wrong at a conference" seems… well… rather silly and old-fogey-ish to this old fogey.

Most conferences I attend in the U.S. have very little swearing during the presentations, if any at all. Smaller, indie conferences tend to have more while large corporate sponsored conferences (Oracle World, WWDC, PDC, etc.) tend to have none at all. Conferences in the UK and Europe (especially the UK) tend to have more swearing than in the U.S., and rarely do people seem to be offended or even notice it.

Your diatribe honestly reads to me as a long-winded way of saying "Americans are just as uptight as everyone thinks we are about stuff and everybody in the world should be like us" or maybe "every speaker has a responsibility to cater to the most sensitive people who might possibly ever be in their audience, no matter how unreasonable they are."

There are certainly situations where swearing isn't appropriate, but trying to draw a hard line around where those are would be nearly impossible. I've honestly heard more swear words in corporate conference rooms than I have on conference stages (at least in the US). But swear words are a part of the vernacular and are in common usage by most people in many situations. They've become increasingly more socially acceptable over time and likely will continue to do so.

Every speaker will be judged by for whatever words they choose to use. Just blanket taking certain words off the table is provincial and short sighted. For me, personally, grammatical gaffs. incorrectly used "clean" words, or bad information are going to invite far harsher judgment than saying "shit", but each audience member is going to have different criteria for judgin.

All that being said, I don't swear in my presentations and don't intentionally swear during Q&A. That's just a side-effect of how I was raised. But I also don't sit in judgment of fellow speakers who make different choices about the content and tone of their talks. If a speaker crosses a line with a particular audience, the organizers will hear about it and won't invite that speaker back, so the problem is self-correcting if it is, indeed, even a problem at all.

tl;dr You're being silly, get over it.
Friday, November 04, 2011 4:33:39 PM UTC
I've always thought that swear words were used when you can't think of anything more intelligent to say. In fact, that's what I tell my 11 year old when I ask him not to use certain words (including, but definitely not limited to, the 7 dirty words).
Friday, November 04, 2011 5:21:58 PM UTC
I agree 100%. In fact I will walk out of a presentation due to offending me but also for wasting my time.
George
Friday, November 04, 2011 5:27:12 PM UTC
This was a great read, as usual. I myself, do swear a lot, to myself. If I stub my toe or die in battlefield 3, a stream of barely coherent filth will come out of my mouth (if the kids are not around that is). It's habit, it's part of my culture.

I do not however use swearing professionally. If you see above, I swear to myself. It's not for anyone else, it's for me. The reason I say this is because words are very powerful. The seven dirty words are as powerful as they are dangerous. I say dangerous because you have to remember that words evoke images, thoughts and emotions in those that hear or read them. Just as with an art piece no two people will see the same thing.

You may think you are enlightened because you think the word is just a word or that it means something cool to you. It does not mean that to everyone. By not acknowledging this you are not displaying enlightenment, but arrogance. You know that the words will evoke an emotional response, but you carelessly use them anyway. Arrogance is not a pretty quality in anyone.

Please heed Scott's advice. Profanity doesn't work.
Friday, November 04, 2011 5:42:35 PM UTC
I heard DDH swear a ton in a podcast. To be very specific, the one with Jason Calacanis on ThisWeekinStartups podcast. He's wrong when he says he does this when he's connected to his audience. He has no idea who's listening to the podcast! I think he's just like that. He swears when he has a strong opinion about something. (Like when Facebook market cap is in the tens of billions. he can't stand this!)
Friday, November 04, 2011 9:40:34 PM UTC
I find perpetuation of dict-supremacy to be in the same realm of stupidity as the perpetuation of racial supremacy.


If someone, call him Bob, was offended by the presence of people of oriental ancestry. Americans would generally think that Bob is the one with the issue. No mobs would rise up to remove the oriental peoples. That would be silly.

Well words and ancestry are different; but they are very much the same in as far as I can figure, there is no reason to be offended by either.

I can understand being offended by the ideas that someone is trying to communicate, but the words themselves. I don't get it.

As far as I'm concerned if you are offended by certain words; it is you that has the problem not the user of those words.
Crash
Friday, November 04, 2011 10:57:46 PM UTC
Thanks for the post.

I agree that the effect of profanity before an audience is neutral at best.

It's one thing to use it to connect in a safe, off-the-record way with individuals who have demonstrated comfort with it. It's quite another to use it in recorded presentations to large audiences of strangers.

Profanity is a gimmick that succeeds in getting people's attention, but it also demonstrates selfishness and contempt for the reasonable sensibilities of the audience.

You, Scott, are on the opposite end. Your respect for your audience is legendary, since you are known to have learned a new language just to better connect with your audience.

No one should believe that cussing in public was the critical factor in making DHH a respected and wealthy programmer.

Setting "proper" education, appropriateness and etiquette aside for the moment, I read somewhere that use of profanity in any professional environment is a dumb idea, for the simple reason that people see you as careless or thoughtless, and careless/thoughtless people don't get ahead.

+1 to you, Chad Myers, and Jon Galloway.
Friday, November 04, 2011 11:16:12 PM UTC
Crash, you cannot control your ancestry, but you can very easily control your language. That is a textbook straw man.
Saturday, November 05, 2011 2:50:45 AM UTC
Daniel, How does control change merit?

I'm hoping for someone to provide me with a logical reason that people would be offended by certain words. Sure would help me fit in better.

I don't think my original post qualifies as strawman. It's easy to confuse the "demonstrating absurdity, by being absurd" approach with a strawman. But a strawman requires that I'm misrepresenting someone's argument. I don't wanna get hung up on that anyway, please please someone give me a logical reason why someone should be offended by a word.
Crash
Saturday, November 05, 2011 3:54:38 AM UTC
Good post Scott. I agree that cursing really doesn't belong in most business settings and it definitely doesn't belong in public presentations. I hate to say it but it reminds me of kids in middle school who are trying too hard.
John
Saturday, November 05, 2011 12:20:31 PM UTC
I think your making a big assumption by saying "Profanity doesn't work." The assumption that you are right and others are wrong. That is indeed the wrong assumption. It is obviously, your opinion. I felt this post a little Christian for my taste and not so palatable. Very disappointing.

Personally, I've seen presenters use profanity in presentations before. I've seen people use it because of nerves, thinking it's a quick win for a poor presentation. However, I've also seen people use it extremely effectively, it can sometimes help drive a message home if used properly.

Let's take your own example; "Don't Give Your Users Shit Work."

When I read that, it really puts emphasis on what I'm about to hear / read / see. I've seen to many boring Microsoft evangelists 'beat around the bush' in the past with too much focus on the sales pitch rather than the actual value.

I suppose this is what happens when you get naturally introverted programmers such as yourself trying to deliver effective presentations.

Let's just say many people would agree to disagree, and here is a little bit of advise for you; next time, phrase it as a question, not a statement. This is your personal opinion, not a general consensus.
Saturday, November 05, 2011 2:48:48 PM UTC
Are you sure that FU slide is DHH, looks more like Sheldon in a deleted scene from "The Big Bang Theory" after Howard substituted a slide in his physics talk.

Bazinga! (now there's a unique expletive).
Saturday, November 05, 2011 5:33:05 PM UTC
I'm with you whole-heartedly. Profanity is always a negative. It's a shortcut and a little lazy. A brilliant comedian is one who doesn't need expletives to make his audience roll.

I grow weary of this new mindset that tossing around vulgarities is somehow cool. It's juvenile, not hip.

This isn't meant to say that DHH and many others who use profanity aren't brilliant at what they do. Just please put aside the profanity and make an impact with your work and your message.
Saturday, November 05, 2011 8:13:06 PM UTC
LOL @ Abe Miessler. But seriously, who gives a shit about a few f bombs? People are too sensitive these days.
Sunday, November 06, 2011 1:52:05 AM UTC
The way I understand DHH's usage of profanity is that it's a way to actively filter the audience. So yes, it limits your reach, by design (which seems to be his approach on Rails too). Can being always super-smooth and polite be offensive? Offensive is a strong word, but one can be irritated by a quasi-robotic corporate mouthpiece that never makes a wave. I think your style is a good compromise. But that's what it is: style.
Sunday, November 06, 2011 6:30:45 AM UTC
I've been of the opinion that swearing and dirty humor are the result of the presenters lack of command of the English language. It's far more difficult to make a point, or to express humor and maintain good language.

Sure, you can drop an f-bomb and I won't squirm in my seat, but I will re-asses my opinion of you; I'll look at you like a cheap salesman trying to appeal to my most base emotions in order to win me over. I'll see you for the charlatan that you wish you were.
Don
Sunday, November 06, 2011 1:06:20 PM UTC
Scott, great post and I agree swearing (BTW, I was also surprised when you used profanity in one of your podcasts) decreases your reach and impact.

Here’s why. I think communication is a fundamental need for all of us. From the moment we’re born to the moment we die. We need to connect. We even go so far as to connect with ourselves by talking to ourselves. No doubt many of us swear to ourselves. This need to communicate must be fulfilled. One person needs to tell another person something they value as important. The emotional component cannot be detached even when some communicate purely to manipulate their audience. I personally endeavor to never use profanity. Why?

A long time ago I decided that when someone uses profanity they (including myself) have reached a point where they’re unable to convey what they mean to say. Their truth. I’ve witnessed many who use profanity as a defense mechanism, as a way to release frustration and anger, to shock and manipulate or even to express joy and happiness. And while we’re able to infer most of the time the speaker’s basic intent the richer fuller more complete message, nuance and truth is lost.

We moved away from grunting as a form of communication. When someone uses profanity it’s like their grunting. I know you’re trying to tell me something and I’d really like to know what you meant to say.
BitTwiddler
Sunday, November 06, 2011 4:39:34 PM UTC
Sorry, but from now on whenever I picture Scott Hanselman it will be with that picture of a grown-up man with a look on his face like he is going to cry and holding up a sign reading "Why So Mean?".
Monday, November 07, 2011 2:09:40 PM UTC
I used to work for an absolutely amazing CEO who would fairly regularly use a little profanity (no f-bombs, but 'GD' and maybe 'S' words) when he gave speeches. Pretty regular occurrences in internal meetings and company-wide quarterly meeting presentations. Then I saw him give a speech to future leaders at school. He used a couple of words in that speech, and I did see a couple of people turn and have quizzical looks. However, most people were so enthralled by his speech that I don't think the rest even noticed.

If the speaker has that sort of presence where people hang on their every word, I think a little profanity can be okay in a presentation, because it does convey a certain amount of passion. But the number of speakers I've ever heard that have that sort of presence I can count on one hand at most. I also don't feel it's appropriate to use profanity to just "shock" people. If that's your reason for doing it, your content probably isn't good enough. The content is what people should be hanging on to, not the fact that you had the audacity to say "F-you" in a presentation.
Monday, November 07, 2011 2:13:36 PM UTC
Scott, completely unrelated, but when I click on a name from a commenter that logged in via OpenId here (like my name), I get an XML file download with generic OpenId info (nothing sensitive). Is that intended?
Wednesday, November 09, 2011 9:22:21 AM UTC
David Hepworth (British music magazine writer/editor) on some recent faux pas:
...audiences have become pre-programmed to laugh at the end of any sentence which finishes with a profanity ... I’ve always taken the view that you shouldn’t use language in a public gathering that you wouldn’t use at a school speech day. Not only does it run the risk of going wrong, as it has done in these cases, but it’s terribly needy. Just how desperate are you to get a laugh?
Tiger Woods caddy and Oscars producer both got in trouble because they were desperate for laughs

Wednesday, November 09, 2011 1:34:00 PM UTC
I find it strange that people who object to swearing often have no problem with words which are far more offensive, but haven't made it to the magic "sweary-naughty-no-no" list.

These people will object to mild profanity like "p*ss off", but have little or no problem with "the N word", "the Q word", "the other F word", "the K word", "the R word", etc.

Mary Whitehouse has a lot to answer for!
Thursday, December 15, 2011 3:11:40 AM UTC
You may not have used "major" profanity, yet you do use it, publicly, on your blog, and on your social marketing machine.

http://www.hanselman.com/blog/DontGiveBileAPermalinkFindingBalanceWithinTheNoAssholeRule.aspx

I consider asshole and dick to both be in the profanity camp, and you, yourself admited publishing a question over twitter using the word "dick". Then to go an title the article with asshole, which you then ask for forgiveness for using!?!

Kind of hypocritical really.
Bob
Thursday, December 29, 2011 11:45:36 PM UTC
Interesting discussion.

What happens, I wonder, when F-bombs become so commonplace that they lose their shock impact? Even when they make up every second word in a sentence? (That is exactly what we put up with from some tenants in the neighbourhood. And of course, their children and toddlers spoke the same way. Very sad.)

I'm interested in workplace policies regarding swearing. Perhaps this is a question to investigate for your proposed TDL episode, Scott?

(Personally, I find it a major negative when it is the normal modus operandi of our system architect, and no one is willing to take him to task.)
David W
Saturday, January 14, 2012 4:11:51 AM UTC
Good to hear someone talking about this. It's a huge turnoff for me, and others I know. It's funny how this has evolved in the technology/developer fields. All of a sudden, throwing the f-bomb in presentations, blogs, twitter, etc. became cool! Like all things, someone started it, and now so many try to emulate it. I don't care who you are, you're not cool, it doesn't make you sound smarter, and it's usually not funny. To me, it shows immaturity and insecurity. Of course, I'm a "prude" if I don't like it.

I blame it on the Brits. ;)
Marcus
Thursday, January 19, 2012 3:56:10 PM UTC
What happens, I wonder, when F-bombs become so commonplace that they lose their shock impact?


Maybe something like this:
www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/australiaandthepacific/australia/9022047/F-word-becoming-vernacular-in-Australia.html
Wednesday, March 14, 2012 2:29:45 AM UTC
Great sentiment/post. I agree although I occasionally let one fly. I like the idea of going out of one's way not to offend and to be inclusive. Thanks, Scott!
Monday, September 17, 2012 9:59:09 PM UTC
Graduated few years ago. Can hardly remember any of my lectures, apart from few where data structures and algorithms lecturer dropped an "F" bomb. That lecture was on rotating trees. That I remember!
Viktor
Monday, September 17, 2012 10:01:56 PM UTC
Another thing to remember that "F" bomb to a foreign developer isn't as offensive as an "F" bomb to the native speaker. I have no particular feelings or emotions associated with that word in english, but I do in my language. I guess if the conference was in my native language, then the negative impact is likely to be much higher
Viktor
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.