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Why people go @*@&@(*&! in the office

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Alone in my apartment, I shout the word that rhymes with “duck.” This happens when I stub my ducking toe. Or when I can find only one ducking shoe. Or when the page stays stubbornly blank: DUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK.

In the newsroom, however, I muffle my profanity. Perhaps I’m hesitant to announce, uh, performance issues. Perhaps my Midwest upbringing has conditioned me to behave.

Some of my colleagues amplify their motherduckers. They name different reasons: frustration, joy, a reflex of unknown origin. I ask because a nationally representative survey of roughly 1,500 workers nationwide found lots of people swear in the office, especially younger people — and especially women.

Nearly half of respondents said they occasionally dropped a taboo word at the office, while a quarter said they did so daily, according to Wrike, a management software company that released the numbers. Participants listed upsides to this free speech — it shows passion and allows for clearer expression — and downsides: It could create a hostile environment or tension between co-workers.

How the n-word became the new f-word

A whopping 94 percent said they cussed more in conversation than in emails. Sixty-six percent said they’d swear if their boss did. And a full third said they didn’t want to work somewhere that banned cursing.

The generational breakdown wasn’t surprising. Eighty percent of millennial managers reported on-the-clock expletives, compared to 56 percent of generation X-ers and baby boomers.

The gender divide seemed less intuitive, though. Sixty percent of the women said they swore at work, while 55 percent of men said the same. Among millennials, both sexes swore an equal amount — but young men were more likely to say swearing co-workers bothered them (27 percent vs. 18 percent).

We can only guess why women apparently out-swear men in this small, nationally representative sample. Cursing has historically registered as "unladylike," so the resurgence of feminism in popular culture might have also swept our vernacular. The f-bomb, then, could be a rejection of verbal gender roles, a power move.

Rapper Nicki Minaj prodded at the old double standard in a 2012 interview. “Why do people ask me to lose swear words?” she asked. “Do people ask Eminem to lose swear words? Do they ask Lil Wayne to lose swear words?”

On the "Today" show last year, Matt Lauer told Tina Fey the dialogue in her film "Sisters" packed "construction-site level cursing," invoking, of course, one of the country's most male-dominated fields. Added weatherman Al Roker: “Probably more cursing than you’ve had in your entire career.”

“That you’ve seen on camera,” Fey quipped. She said swearing felt comfortable, like “an old swaddling blanket.”

Psychology papers tell us swearing, regardless of gender, is cathartic, a verbal release. It can be a substitute for physical violence. It can communicate enthusiasm, authenticity, humor.

Other studies suggest swearing is associated with having a larger vocabulary and boosts morale among low-level workers. It can help us take pain. It can, oddly, help us appear more credible and less educated.

Kids are learning curse words earlier than they used to

On my public Facebook page, I conducted a quick, informal poll. Why do you cuss at work? (Disclaimer: Some of these folks are my real-world friends. Also, I did not independently verify everyone's occupation.)

“Cussing at work seems to comfort the Marines in some strange way,” a male Marine officer said in a message. “It puts them at ease. Let's them know I'm not trying to be overly professional.”

“Words are tools and I wouldn't leave home without any of them,” a female journalism professor said.

“Because sometimes it's the only way to express my/our level of incredulity,” a female copywriter said.

“I sometimes catch myself doing it as an expression of frustration to myself, but am taken aback when a co-worker directly speaks it to someone," a female GOP senate aide said.

“I do because I work in an informal environment where swearing as well as sexist jokes and sexual innuendo is very acceptable,” a female hotel employee said.

“Pretty sure it's a requirement of my workplace,” a male tour manager in the music industry said.

"F bomb gets dropped a lot, usually in post meeting side conversations as a way to bond over the ridiculousness that occurred in the full meeting," a female government employee said.

“When I worked no one swore at work unless they were uneducated and very rude. Times have changed," a retired baby boomer woman said.

More on Wonkblog:

Why it's good to curse a lot

What really drives you crazy about waiting in line (it actually isn’t the wait at all)