Swearing At Work: Don’t Fuck It Up
In this weekly series, I opine on how language and content affect the way we understand the products and services around us. I do this for your entertainment and education (and, of course, to remind you that if you’re looking for a freelance copy, content, product, or technical writer… yada yada, hire me).
There is a climactic moment in “The Post” where one of the journalists rouses his audience, both before and beyond the fourth wall, with a quote attributed to Phil Graham, late publisher of the Washington Post:
“[What we write is]… the first rough draft of history”, the actor, and character, proclaim proudly.
Admittedly, the line, delivered ham in fist, is but one of the many moments of Spielberg’s assured Oscar nominee so transparently designed to bludgeon audiences and critics alike with its poignance.
Nevertheless, I found it so particularly memorable given the “draft of history” this week writ with a single word:
Wait, What Happened?
This week past, an important negotiation took place with US policy makers on “DACA”, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects immigrants brought to the US as children from knee-jerk deportation.
Amidst negotiations on this legislation, which has proven quite volatile given the current bipolarity of US sentiment on the issue, Trump allegedly questioned his country’s decision to ever make citizens of people from (quote) “shithole” countries.
As you might expect, the fallout has been legendary.
Almost by itself, the lone word immediately set ablaze two massive infernos of public interest:
- News media ran wild with the story, some going so far as to use the word uncensored in headlines
- Social media erupted with a hashtag, indignant success stories, and glorious outcry from those born in the unceremoniously classified countries
Each had its own take, of course, but the general sentiment, to put it mildly, was negative.
As with pretty much any week lately, the media had a field day.
I intended to pull together the various headlines and framings from the mainstream media to highlight just how many different interpretations and crucifications “the swear” led to, but ironically the Washington Post beat me to it.
(As an aside, scanning the visual layout of how and where the quote was used on various media front- and homepages provides a really interesting perspective on where and how the news used this to draw attention.)
With dust settled, most outlets focused on the underlying political issue, the swear did play prominently in much of the coverage, where it was used effectively as shock value to generate broader interest and awareness.
Social media likewise followed suit with a field day of its own.
By midday on the story’s break, “shithole” the hashtag began to trend as hundreds of thousands posted across various mediums their American Dream success story after emigrating from one of the purported “shitholes”.
The movement was staggering in the speed at which it arose, the participation of notable personalities, and the rate at which it is spreading.
In fact, at this rate, #shithole is likely to join #metoo as one of the most influential social commentary movements generated by the broader social media community since inception.
While the underlying racism and meaning behind this particular word is worthy of a great deal of analysis, I find myself entranced with the newfound semiotics of the word itself.
One word used one way in one context has now become supercharged with even more connotative meaning.
Indeed, words are such an important part of politics; it is with very few words that many a country’s history has been written.
“Hope” and “Change” played prominently in Obama’s rise to fame as did “sexual relations” and “crook” in the falls of Clinton and Nixon, respectively.
Even Trump’s own administration would argue (and I would be inclined to agree) that a huge part of the campaign’s success hinged on its ability to bubble complex ideas down into four simple words that everyone could understand.
Indeed, “Make America Great Again” became as supercharged for Trump’s base as “Shithole” has become for his detractors.
Perhaps it is poetic justice that one of Trump’s “everyman” words so effortlessly distills the rampant undertow of racism and isolationism that it could cause such widespread awareness and disgust and action.
That’s why I laughed when I heard that line in “The Post”.
The draft of history now has a squiggly red underline on its most recent and prominent word – a word that perfectly captures the tone, temperament, and totality of its current and increasingly memorable author.
Believe it or not, I do think there’s a lesson to learn here that we can apply to the way we write about our products and services.
Swear words are amongst the most powerful in our lexicon. Very few words can more succinctly capture emotion in a human, relatable way.
In fact, this is something I believe in very strongly, and I regularly use swear words in presentations and in my writing. (See if you can find the swear word used pointedly and for effect in TouchBistro’s about page.)
Muzzle’s use of “fuckboy” on its primary product landing page is a great example. It captures very, very quickly the value prop of its product while injecting an effective humanized humour into its pitch.
But like all powerful things, swear words can be very dangerous when used inappropriately. The same stickiness that makes them useful can also make them deadly.
Just as very few will ever forget Trump’s message here, because it is captured by a single word that rouses our attention, so too will those that come across your product if you use incendiary language improperly.
So, you can use a word like “shithole” when you need to and be successful in doing so. You may just want to avoid using it to describe your competitors or their countries…
…or, you know, if you’re the fucking president of the United States describing fellow nations.
What about you? Any lessons you’ve drawn from this? Respond away. And if you’d like to learn more about me or my business, visit www.frankcaron.com.