9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

I Swear: Cussing, Cursing, and Carrying On in the Comm Center

Taken from 911 Magazine March 2008
Written by Barry Furey, Director of Raleigh-Wake County (NC) Emergency Communications Center. He has been involved in public safety for more than 35 years, having managed 911 center in four states.

In 1972, Comedian George Carlin had a popular routine based upon seven words that you can't say on television. Although cable TV has relaxed the former network rules, several of these words are still not politely uttered in the PSAP even 35 years after the fact. And when they are spoken nowadays, it may not be a laughing matter.

In public safety, as in private life, adult language -- as it is sometimes called -- predictably makes its way into the conversation. However, when it begins to dominate the conversation, it's clearly another matter. One of my employees recently wondered if some people were capable of making a complete sentence without interjecting a four-letter word. Even if not considered offensive, certain terms can easily be viewed as crude and non-professional. Coarse language is often referred to as "just boys being boys," but my personal experience has shown that the ladies more than hold their own when it comes to this vocabulary skill. Witness another telecommunicator who informed me that since her child is growing, the only place she can use off color colloquialisms is at work.

Anyone who has spent any time in this industry knows the potential -- and possibly even the benefit -- of blowing off steam after a particularly difficult call. However, here too, it's a matter of a boiling cauldron of concern designed specifically to test their personal patience. Each caller infuriates them more than the last. Every radio request is apparently for information or assistance that the field unit should be capable of getting for themselves. Rather than view these instances as normal occurrences that are part of the job, they look upon them as intrusions that warrant a colorful array of nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives.

Several years ago, an employee of mine suddenly started exhibiting this type of behavior. Once relatively calm, he began to regularly spout a string of complaints and obscenities as soon as he put down the phone. When questioned about it, he informed me that his doctor advised him to immediately relieve himself of any stress through vocalization. I suggested that he spend a few hours relieving his stress in a similar manner in is physician's waiting room to see how quickly the good doctor's prescription might change. This tactic might be lowering his blood pressure, but it was certainly raising those of everyone around him.

Employers have a responsibility to provide a professional workplace. In the minds of many, unfettered profanity equates to a hostile working environment. More so, if these choice words happen to be part of a ribald tale or "dirty" joke, the potential for a sexual harassment claim arises. And, if the phrases selected have racial, religious, or ethnic overtones there is added cause for concern. Keep in mind that there is no warning required to cease the offensive behavior in many of these cases. A single utterance may be sufficient cause for action.

In many instances, what constitutes profanity may truly be in the ear of the beholder. I have one group of friends, for example, who consider a certain epithet to be relatively minor on the offensiveness scale, while another group decry its use; taking the term at its literal meaning -- invoking damnation by the Lord. Because of this, some workplaces have outright bans on obscenity. The Rand Corporation -- a non-profit think tank -- for example, looks at it this way: "Profanity will always offend someone, but the lack of profanity will never offend anyone." It's a clear case of, "take away the choice; take away the problem."

However, according to some, all profanity is not necessarily harmful. A study conducted by the University of East Anglia, located in Norwich, Norfolk, England, found that swearing may actually foster team building and increase productivity. This finding was not without caveats, however. Researchers observed that cursing at your boss was probably not a good tactic, whereas another group found that the use of foul language by a manager or supervisor can actually be demoralizing to the staff. Many papers also seem to indicate that gender bias plays a role in acceptability. Women who routinely swore were looked upon less favorably than men with the similar habit. Cursing like a sailor, it appears, is decidedly not ladylike.

As long as there are spoken words, there will always be some words that are considered offensive. And as long as there are managers, we will be called upon to deal with the issues that this fact creates. While a swirling string of obscenities may cloud the air, one thing is clear; a coherent policy on cursing is required. According to one legal expert, this should, "at least address where profanity can cross the line and become harassment. But you should also be rational. I don't think you should discipline someone when they drop a hammer on their foot."

If "blue" words surface less frequently than the proverbial blue moon, chances are you are on the right track. In our environment, situational reduction may be a more realistic goal than outright elimination. But, if your danged policy fails to get the desired results, then what the heck? Shoot! Hit them in the blasted head with that same freakin' hammer. That'll get their attention.

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