It’s 1992, and all the Year 11s (15-16 year olds) are assembled in the hall to listen to a panel of three speakers. The third speaker was a young woman, perhaps around 25 years old, while the other two were older men. I don’t know if she thought she would demonstrate her young and ‘with it’ credentials or what, but all of a sudden she said:
“Now, you might think. who gives a f***…”
The room instantly froze, and even the speaker wasn’t so thick-skinned that she didn’t feel the ice in the air, for she went bright red and stammered a bit and delivered the rest of her talk without looking up from her notes.
The swearing added nothing to her talk. What it did do was almost certainly blight her chances of getting as many speaking engagements in schools as she might have hoped for. Why? Because the headteacher turned to a few of us after she had sat down and said:
“Well, I’m sure she has a very promising speaking career ahead of her — but not in this school.”
I should imagine that in the feedback to the speaking agency afterwards he would have said not to send her back to the school in future, and why not. If the agency were concerned that their own reputation could be damaged by such misjudgement, I should think they would have removed her from their listings.
Hence my view that such gratuitous swearing is very ill-judged. If you were to undertake a rough and ready cost-benefit analysis, and conclude that the potential cost of a particular action far outweighs the potential benefit, then you’d be nuts to continue. And if you do not think about it in advance, then in my opinion that is far from sensible.
A quarter of a century on, swearing is more common, less shocking, and overall more ‘normal’ — but that doesn’t make it any the less an ill-judged thing to do, because a very similar argument obtains.
For example, the other day I was reading a transcript of a talk given to a group of students. The transcript was published on the speaker’s blog, and it was partly about a book the speaker had written.
A few paragraphs into the talk was the comment ‘F*****g classrooms’. This was pretty jarring, but in the naive hope that it might be a one-off, I continued reading. Then there was more swearing, and so several things happened:
I stopped reading the article without finishing it. I don’t find it pleasant to read or listen to someone swearing just for the sake of it.
I resolved not to invite this person to speak at a conference when I am next involved in organising one. I don’t want to be worried that they would suddenly swear and alienate half the audience, with all the resulting bad publicity that that would probably entail.
I decided not to read their blog again, or recommend it, unless I found out about an article there that was too compelling to resist.
I won’t buy the book, just in case that’s full of swear words too.
I won’t recommend them to editors or anyone looking for a speaker.
I suppose it is within the bounds of possibility that some people, on reading an education blog that contains swearing for no apparent reason, will think that this is fantastic, that it shows how fearless this person is. Personally I think it shows how inarticulate they are if they can’t express themselves without sprinkling their text or talks with swear words. It also shows how unoriginal they are because these days lots of people swear — in book titles, articles, tv programmes, to name just a few.
I don’t suppose my individual stance on recommending them is likely to have much of an impact on their income. But given that probably not many people take such a stand when a writer or speaker doesn’t swear enough, and that there are doubtless many other people like me who don’t want to risk offending people, gratuitous swearing is likely to be more income and career limiting than income or career-enhancing.
Which is why I think it is very ill-judged.