Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Is Profanity Really As Bad As All That?

Bleep, bleep...

I ventured to a clearance outlet store yesterday.  I usually try to avoid these places, not out of snobbery, but because I hate the long lineups that seem to be a fixture in any retail outlet that promises to save, save, save you money.  But, I needed something that is out of season and therefore, unavailable in "normal" stores.  I found what I was looking for quickly and joined a line of about 20 people waiting to be served by one cashier.  The wait was unpleasant, the surroundings were unattractive and the temperature was stifling but since I anticipated as much ahead of time, I settled in and read the news on my Blackberry to pass the time.  Aside: what did people do to alleviate boredom before smartphones?

When I was second from the front, a customer arrived out of nowhere laden down with purchases and promptly walked up to the cashier.  The man in front of me, with a heavily pregnant wife in tow, told her loudly that there was a line and she belonged at the back of it.  She looked around and murmured sweetly that she didn't notice there was a line.  Personally, I think she was faking it and taking her chances but no matter, she shuffled to the back, professing her innocence all the way.

When it was his turn to go to the cash, the loud man seemed agitated and jumpy.  From what I could see, he was trying to negotiate a transaction that was either outside of the store's policies or that the cashier was unable or unwilling to complete.  In the meantime, a second cashier arrived back from her lunch break so I was served immediately.  As I was paying for my purchase, I could sense that things were getting quite heated over at the other cash station as the man's irritation bubbled over and a few seconds later, he yelled, "Bleep this.  I'm so sick of this bleeping bullshit.  This is the reason I waited in the bleeping line for so bleeping long" and marched out of the store.

For a rare moment, everyone was silent - the employees, the people in the lineup and the other shoppers milling around the store - and just stared slack-jawed at the man, unsure if their ears had deceived them.  Somewhat unwisely, the cashier left her post to chase after him yelling, "Swearing is not tolerated in our store under any circumstances.  You can't treat me like that".  While the people still in line seemed sympathetic, I don't think they appreciated having to wait even longer while she attempted to avenge the injustice.

My own cashier was quite taken aback and I had to wait a few minutes while she composed herself.  With my Scottish background, I'm used to profanity-laden outbursts, fueled sometimes, but not always, by an excessive intake of alcohol. I told her that the guy probably just had a bad day and this might have been the final straw and we can never take these kinds of things personally.  She responded with conviction, "A grown man needs to be able to handle himself without using those words."  Anxious to move along, I nodded my head but the thing is, while I care about etiquette and civility, I actually don't find profanity that offensive. I'm not saying we should all give up on polite conversation and start tossing around swear words in every conversation, it doesn't shock or bother me that people resort to it when they're pushed to the limit.  To me, they are just words and they're incredibly uninspired ones at that.  I've known enough amazing wordsmiths in my life who can cut people down to size in a much harsher way without a single four-letter word.  For a great example of this, catch Maggie Smith's portrayal of the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey.

When people reach this level of anger, they're usually dealing with a bunch of their own stuff and the circumstances that finally send them off the deep end are just the final straw.  The person on the receiving end usually just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Maybe I'm cutting the guy some slack because I have had my fair share of awful customer service experiences where I too, have felt so belittled and stepped upon that I wondered if swearing like a drunken sailor could be the only thing that gets through to an uncaring store employee.  My husband, who is often on construction sites where handling problems with profanity is the norm, says it's liberating not to have to dance around issues with political correctness and politeness when you can take care of it swiftly with a few choice swear words and move on.

I'm not advocating that workplaces everywhere should adopt an anything goes approach to coarse language.  But, I guess for me, actions speak louder than words.  What's your take?  Are the words important or the fact that someone has been made so angry that they felt they had no choice but to use them?

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