I was far away from home, training a customer in Kaiping, China into the late hours on a Friday night. It was at the new Chinese operation of an American company. I was giving the lab manager, Mr. Li, extra training on our installed system. Although I spoke Chinese during much of the week’s training, Mr. Li asked that we only converse in English so that he could practice and improve his language skills.
“How are you Mr. Li?”
“I am fine, Mr. Lio.”
“That’s good. How many children do you have?
“I have one daughter.”
We continued this banter back and forth for a few minutes until…
“Yes?” I replied.
“Mr. Lio…What does ‘F--- You!‘ mean?”
I froze for a few seconds. I was very tired after training two shifts for a week coupled with the time zone change. Did I hear correctly?
“Um…Mr. Li, can you repeat your question?”
“Mr. Lio…What does ‘F--- You!’ mean?”
“Mr. Li, those are very bad words! Can you tell me where you heard that?”
It turned out that an Italian company sent an engineer to install some equipment. One of the local employees picked up one of the engineer's tools and dropped it. The engineer must have been in a bad mood since he proceeded to say “F--- You!” to everyone he came across there. (In hindsight, I could have had fun by telling Mr. Li that those were nice words which he should immediately use to greet his American managers the next morning.)
This brings up the question of profanity, particularly in business. Is it ever proper? Over the years, I have often wondered about the use of profanity and four letter words in business.
My first job was working in a company where the founders were still actively managing the business. It was a quintessential family run business where everyone was collegial. As times changed, as the owners got older, the board hired an external candidate as the new CEO. Was everyone in for a surprise when the new guy showed up! A man raised in Texas and a former CEO in New Jersey (perhaps a bad combination). He cussed up a storm. The “F---” and “S---” words flew out of almost every sentence uttered. Meetings with him were like Eddie Murphy concerts. He seemed to get a rise out of people’s reactions. I don’t think that it made employees work any harder than they did or lead to better results. In fact, it made me think less of him as a person and leader.
Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel is known for his propensity for “salty language”. During a disagreement over lengthening the school day, Emanuel reportedly said, “F--- you, Lewis.” to Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union. I don’t think that Dale Carnegie taught that in “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. (Does he kiss his mother with that mouth?)
As a native New Yorker, I know my fair share of swear words - in four different languages. I do hear some profanity from some colleagues, very rarely, as some of the “cussing” has become colloquial. I would make the case that purposeful directing of profanity at others and using crude language has no place in business. For me, quite simply, I said the “F” word once in front of my father and never again. He slapped me. That was the only time when my father ever slapped me. His look of disappointment was far worse than the actual slap itself. I don’t say those words in front of my family and I don’t want my children to use such terms (although they probably learned them after finishing first grade). Since I don’t really know how another person feels about such language, it is best to be respectful and find an alternate way to phrase things. If it has no place in my home, it has no place in my business dealings.
Note – when certain words do fit the situation:
There was one memorable Saturday morning at 1:30 AM in Japan. I was setting up a high speed impact test instrument for a very important customer demonstration happening in a few hours - I had flown to Japan specifically to meet the prospect in our Tokyo demonstration center. I did one last check before my local colleagues and I could leave for a few hours of precious sleep. Everyone gathered around as I pressed the “Start” button to run a high speed 22 meters per second impact simulation. The machine fired and broke the test specimen…and tore through the test fixture. I remember a moment of complete silence and then a collective “Oh s---". (I didn’t even know that they could all say that in English). Perhaps there was no better phrase to describe that moment but this was an exception to the rule.
Frank Lio is a Product Manager, Strategist, and Change Agent in the Hi-Tech industry. His growing track record of successes include creating 3 winning software products, leading nationwide seminars, and turning around a failing business unit. He is currently serving a dual role as Product Manager and Business Team Support Manager at Instron ITW.
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