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How To Swear At Your Coworkers
Two Ways To Use Bad Language In The Workplace
Britain is currently conducting an official inquiry into the government’s response to Covid-19. The epicentre of the response was 10 Downing Street under Boris Johnson. Hundreds of conversations carried out on WhatsApp and email are tumbling into the public domain, and they make for grisly reading.
What they reveal, in garish detail, is that for most of this period Johnson and his top advisers were fighting among themselves and unable to agree on a strategy, while being stampeded by events. To some extent this is forgivable, even inevitable - nobody in government had ever faced a crisis like this before. But there is a frenzied, panicky, rancorous flavour to the exchanges which makes you realise that however bad the decision-making seemed from the outside, it was actually worse than we thought.
This tone was set, of course, by the Prime Minister. Johnson was incapable of making decisions and sticking to them, or of developing his scattered and contradictory thoughts into a strategy. He was emotionally unstable, too, puffed up with bravado and paralysed by self-doubt, one minute making stirringly patriotic speeches; the next, putting his head in his hands and declaring all was lost.
It never fails to impress me quite how much a leader’s personality shapes the culture of an organisation. Johnson’s team were the collective embodiment of his style: verbose, blustery and mercurial, simultaneously arrogant and self-loathing. Other than the PM, the dominant personality was his chief adviser Dominic Cummings, who generated a kind of neurotic and unfocused energy which made him better at burning bridges than building them.
In their messages to each other, the team did a lot of swearing. Cummings, in particular, relished it. At one point he told the Prime Minister, referring to the cabinet: “At the moment the [Westminster] bubble thinks you’ve taken your eye off ball, you’re happy to have useless fuckpigs in charge…”. To another adviser, he said the PM was in “Jaws wank mode” - that is, by refusing to lock down, he was acting like the mayor in Jaws who insisted the beaches stay open. Then there was this:
“If I have to come back to Helen’s bullshit with PET [the government’s propriety and ethics team] — designed to waste huge amounts of my time so I can’t spend it on other stuff — I will personally handcuff her and escort her from the building. I don’t care how it is done but that woman must be out of our hair — we cannot keep dealing with this horrific meltdown of the British state while dodging stilettos from that cunt.”
These and other profanities have made headlines this week. To focus on the use of bad language might seem absurdly trivial when this inquiry is raising profound questions about the capacity of the British state. The members of any team under intense pressure will and should be blunt with one another; a crisis is no time for decorum. So what’s the problem?
I agree that swearing is not, in itself, a cause of dysfunction. But I don’t think people are wrong to feel uncomfortable about it. I am. I don’t want senior government officials swearing in messages or meetings, and I certainly don’t want them swearing at the Prime Minister, whoever he or she may be. In fact, I would say similar of any workplace where complex, high-stakes decisions are being taken.
Why? Because the liberal use of swearing indicates a deeper problem - a lack of self-discipline. The linguistic norms and protocols of “civility” can act as fussy obstructions to plain speaking, but they can also be signs that we mean what we say - that before opening our mouth, or tapping with our thumb, we’ve done some thinking. Johnson’s No.10 was a competition to see which headless chickens could squawk loudest. The quantity of swearing was in inverse proportion to the quality of thought.
Reading the inquiry transcripts, it sometimes seems as if Cummings and his allies modelled their speech on characters from The Thick Of It, co-written by Jesse Armstrong, who also created Succession. In both shows, characters spew words constantly and engage in contests of elaborate profanity. In the first three series of Succession, no episode had fewer than 40 uses of the word “fuck”. But, to state the obvious, we aren’t meant to come away impressed by this. The verbal fireworks in these shows are engaged in by hollow characters who hate facing up to decisions, or to the void within. They are not serious people.
Professional swearing is powerful only when it is rare and considered. Actually, there is a perfect example of this from the inquiry, and it comes from the “Helen” that Cummings was so unpleasant about. Helen MacNamara was a senior civil servant at the Cabinet Office (next door to No.10) during the pandemic. She gave several hours of verbal evidence on Wednesday, on top of a long and lucidly written statement (extracts here, full document here).
She is calm, thoughtful and clear-eyed about the whole period, including about the poisonous working culture overseen by Johnson and Cummings. Presented with Cummings’ message about her, and the lack of a rebuke from the PM, she said it was “miles away from what is right or proper or decent, or what the country deserves”. It’s hard to disagree.
Early in the pandemic, when our government was still dithering over whether to lock down, even as Italy’s hospitals were being overrun, it was MacNamara who yanked the alarm. After a meeting in the Cabinet Office with another senior civil servant to review what was meant to be the response plan, she concluded that there was no plan, that the country was about to be overwhelmed, and that nobody was gripping the crisis. She walked into No.10. marched into the Prime Minister’s office, where Johnson was surrounded by his advisers, and said:
“There is no plan. We are in huge trouble. I have come through here to the Prime Minister's Office to tell you all I think we're absolutely fucked. I think this country is heading for a disaster. I think we're going to kill thousands of people."
This moment was later cited by Cummings himself as a turning point in the government’s response.
Civil servants do not generally swear in the presence of ministers, especially the Prime Minister, and as I say, that’s generally a good thing. If they did, MacNamara’s intervention would not have made such an impact. Her speech was profane and shockingly direct (“we’re going to kill thousands of people”) but it wasn’t impulsive; you can tell by the deliberate phrasing she has thought about what to say. She was using a heightened register strategically, because she had judged that a polite, mandarin-like tone was no longer going to cut it.
We should try and be reasonable and agreeable right up until the point where it no longer makes sense to do so. Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked that “sometimes a scream is better than a thesis”. Swearing is a kind of verbalised scream. Use it wisely.
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