A reader writes:
My coworker is constantly swearing. It’s really foul and demeaning language (such as “f***ing b**ch” or “thanks for nothing, you idiot”). Sometimes it’s low volume but at other times close to screaming or almost like a mantra, especially in the evening when many people have gone home. These outbursts are apparently not directed at anyone sitting around, seem to be directed at the people who send the e-mails, the computer itself, or some imaginary person. Still, this is extremely disturbing and startles me several times a day. Using headphones or earplugs is difficult as I need to communicate with my colleagues.
I have heard people complain and comment on this but no one does anything. I haven’t addressed this either. I’m not sure if this may be some kind of an illness and I don’t want to embarrass the person. But I’m really desperate as this is making it impossible to concentrate and get my work done.
I’ve written before about my love of profanity, but exercising it depends on being in an environment where it’s not going to make anyone uncomfortable. That’s not the case here. And what’s more, it sounds like the hostility behind the language is at least as troubling — if not more so — than the language itself.
So speak up! It’s completely reasonable for you to ask this guy to tone it down. This isn’t like asking someone not to cough; this is behavior that’s both within his control and generally acknowledged to be something that makes plenty of people uncomfortable.
The next time it happens, say something like this: “Joe, could you tone the language down? Thank you.”
If he glares at you or something, ignore him. Smile pleasantly and move on. If he argues with you, though, just say something like, “I know different people have different comfort levels with language, but it’s hard on my ears, so I appreciate you making the effort. Thank you.”
And really, if it continues after a couple of reminders, talk to your boss. There’s something legitimately unsettling about the behavior you’ve described (“screaming or almost like a mantra”).