Profanity in Your Newsletter?

Here in the twenty-first century, everyone claims to “have no time.”

The accepted wisdom, therefore, is that if you want anyone to read your newsletter, watch your video, attend your presentation, etc., it’s got to be super short. Busy, busy, busy – none of us has even a minute to spare.

Unless … it’s a podcast. In that case, we all suddenly have three hours available.

I don’t understand it, but I admit that I am not immune to this trend. Like you, I now have a handful of podcasts that I listen to on a regular basis. 

One of these is WTF, hosted by Marc Maron.

He has a comfortable, “guy you smoked weed with during freshman year of college and have now just run into at your local dive bar” manner that I find appealing.

He interviews lots of high-profile people – actors, athletes, musicians, etc. 

I find this particularly interesting, since in his standard hour-plus format, his guests share a lot of detail about how they got started, what goes on behind the scenes in their work, etc., all delivered in a relaxed manner.

How relaxed? Well, in the last week alone, I’ve heard Matt Damon, Jackson Browne, and Helen Hunt all drop multiple F-bombs.

At first, I found it a bit surprising; it’s not something you hear when these same people appear on network television.

But it did get me thinking: When is profanity okay and, more specifically, as a small professional service firm or independent, can you ever use it in your newsletter?

I’m going to ask you to weigh in at the end – I don’t claim to know the answer – but here are some thoughts on the topic to get you started…

“Is it offensive?”

I’m not sure to whom. You can hardly read a novel, open a magazine, or watch any movie or streaming series north of Disney, without encountering profanity everywhere.

As my son Jonathan used to joke when we tried to shield his then 13-year-old self from all of this, “Have you been to middle school?”

“Is it unprofessional?”

This feels closer to a reasonable objection. Even though most of us use profanity in “everyday life,” when it moves from a private conversation into something written or spoken to a business audience, maybe it’s crossing a line?

It’s interesting, though, how things evolve. Words that were once off limits – hell, damn, etc. – are now barely noticed. Who knows what the next 10 or 20 years will bring?

“Is it authentic?”

To me, this is the key question. The perfect “voice” for your newsletter is your voice.

I have a number of clients who drop the F-bomb into casual conversation (don’t make me name names). 

I actually find it kind of charming when a smart, successful, respected professional uses profanity to make a point. It cuts through the jargon and feels real.

Last week, while talking with a new client about the voice of their soon-to-be-launched newsletter, I asked the two principals (both extremely successful, highly educated, and well-respected) if they use profanity with their prospects and clients – since they use it all the time with me.

Their immediate answer was a resounding (and profanity-laced) affirmation. “That’s who we are.”

Should they use it in their newsletter? It’s certainly consistent with their brand and anyone who would be bothered probably wouldn’t be a good match for them anyway.

And yet… after pondering it all week, I’m still not sure what to recommend.

So, here’s where I’m going to stop and ask you to weigh in:

Where’s the line? Is there a line? What are the tradeoffs and considerations involved?

Share your thoughts below (but no profanity please; it’s not part of my brand, so I’d rather not have it in the comments!).

33 thoughts on “Profanity in Your Newsletter?

  1. Rose

    Conversational profanity in the workplace–now seems common to me. (Although I personally have chosen not to curse.) But printed or spoken in any context for promoting or as a public face for your business (whether solo entrepreneur or corporation) to me is extremely off-putting. And although I don’t often go the all-caps route, I’d say EXTREMELY off-putting!

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  2. Art

    Profanity simply shows a lack of language skills and is a substitute for more acceptable words. I vote “no” on use of profanity.

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  3. Lisa Dinhofer

    Actually, I’m sick of it…the profanity. And most of the time I think its used to look/sound ‘cool’ or as a way to shock in order to get your attention to do what they really hope and that is to sell you something or create an image in your mind about who they are. We’re inundated with a whole lot of stuff in movies, TV, social media and print…doesn’t mean we have to perpetuate or emulate it. What I notice about professionals who choose to lace their output with profanity is that it instantly registers with me in the negative. I’ve never found my public presentations or workshops lacking or un-impactful because I don’t include profanity. I have however, on a number of occasions been told that I’m a ‘class act’ who is really good at what she does. I’ll take that any day.

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    1. Jonn Karsseboom

      Hi Michael!
      Interesting topic! I ran into this dilemma deciding music for our garden center. (I completely decided the explicit versions were ok because it’s a form of art.) In my writing (and talking) I personally haven’t put my hand in that forbidden cookie jar only because there are so many more other fun options (and often funnier options.) No offense if someone else chooses to use those choice words though. Caps on the other hand? Use sparingly please. (Unless it’s funny.) REALLY FUNNY Ok?

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  4. Brianne

    I think if it aligns with your brand – and I think of Frank’s Red Hot, I put that sh*t on everything slogan – then it could work. I find when a brand chooses profanity as part of their voice, they do so to appeal to a certain generation.
    I love a good profanity, in business, I like the suggestion. Frank’s uses the star to censor their profanity while still making it fun.
    If you run a funeral home, profanity should be left at the door.
    If it suits the brand voice and isn’t derogatory towards someone (e.g. racial or sexual orientation based) then give it a go and see how your prospects react. Adjust as needed.

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  5. Rhonda

    I think there is still a difference between word choices in the spoken vs written word. Do the business owners use it regularly when they write an email for example? If so, I think they could use some profanity in a newsletter, but I would suggest using it less than they would if they were speaking.

    I do agree with the earlier comments that using profanity can be lazy, but it can also really emphasize a point. It’s the voice of the client after all. I’d caution about overuse in the written word.

    Maybe an A/B test on their audience??

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  6. Jen

    Such an interesting question, Michael! I think to some extent this is a generational thing–maybe I’m old and stodgy, but I just don’t swear much in regular life and wouldn’t dream of doing it in professional contexts. (I am the person people always apologize for swearing in front of, until they realize that I am not offended, even though I don’t join in.)

    But I think a lot of younger people have a much more casual relationship with profanity. I do think it has become overused and (as someone else pointed out) it’s a somewhat lazy habit–like using a string of emojis rather than finding the actual correct word or phrase.

    I also think respect factors into it. Many people are, in fact, offended by the use of profanity, and I just don’t think it’s polite to run roughshod over that fact–especially when there’s rarely a compelling justification to do so.

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  7. Pierre Gagnon

    A big NO to profanity.
    It shows a lack of civility, respect, vocabulary, security, caring, confidence, individuality, character, good manners, and a ton of…
    Would you use it with your granny?
    With your new date?
    In an interview for a 6-figure job interview?
    Let’s stop that social sickness.
    Just talk nice, clean, and true.
    Try it, it’s so easy.
    You may make new friends that way.

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  8. Michael Hume

    My wife accuses me of being a neat freak. Okay, she actually calls me “OCD” because I’m always straightening things up around the house. She prefers a “lived in” look, as she puts it, and has at times wondered if I clean up the place just to shame her. I don’t. I do it because I’m really into BEAUTY in my world, and I don’t find a messy kitchen or office beautiful.

    What does this have to do with profanity in newsletters? Not a freakin’ thing, maybe, except that, while I might agree that profanity has become almost inoffensive, can be seen as authentic, and doesn’t clash as much as it once did with the notion of “professionalism”… it never has been, and never will be, beautiful.

    It’s pretty ugly, in fact.

    (Note this interesting and somewhat contradictory term: “pretty ugly.”)

    That doesn’t mean I don’t use it from time to time. Sometimes, profanity is an ice-breaker, as I learned in the 82nd Airborne many years ago. However, I never put it in writing, in any form. I won’t even text bad words. I use “freakin'” a lot (see above), and occasionally, in a text to someone with whom I’m VERY close, I’ll put “sh1t” (note that this is not actually a cuss word… it’s some letters with a number that gives the impression of a cuss word). But I refuse to “make a record” of profanity by putting it in writing.

    Besides, there’s a boat load of other fun words you can pull out of your boat to sub for profanity. And while some of those aren’t all that freakin’ beautiful either, for some reason I don’t find them as ugly.

    My two cents’ worth.

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  9. Eric Turner

    I’d say it’s inappropriate in written communication, like a newsletter.

    My late mother would say that using profanity demonstrates a profound lack of creativity.

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  10. Brad Dunsé

    Short version. It better be who you are and who you want to attract, or you just look dumb. Over all, I feel it cheapens and weakens the person, shows lack of respect for others, tips the hand to undisciplined restraint. I’m not put off by it in books, movies, or if it depicts an authentic character. I suppose there are such authentic characters in businesses, but I don’t hang with them. I’m talking F-bomb or equal. The occasional minor league words (opposite of heaven and the one sounding like a man-made river blockage–honoring Michaels request here ) have become passable in most coffeeshop conversations and certain business environments but mostly still not. And then there are the F-bomb substitutes. Oh boy, that’s for the next episode of As the World Cusses.

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  11. Sherry Dutra

    Interesting question that you pose, Michael. I’m a fan of professionalism and lacing business speech or communications with profanity rubs me the wrong way. As others have said, there are far more effective ways to make a point. However, I suppose it can work in marketing if people who appreciate profanity are the types of clients someone is hoping to attract. Then, they are successfully weeding out people, like me, who would be turned off by foul language in a business setting.

    While I’ve been known to use “cuss” words in my private life from time to time, I would not advocate using that language in a professional setting – either in a conversation or in writing.

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  12. Amy

    No. Just no, OK?

    It’s unprofessional, and a “trend” that just turns people off. The thing is, maybe you won’t know that people click away, because they won’t tell you.

    Finding f-bombs in direct marketing leads to one thing: the burn bin. Anything I read online that starts inundating me with swearing, I click away Because it’s rude, not “authentic.” But it’s your marketing, you do what you want with it.

    Here’s the thing: when you pepper your sentences with profanity, especially repeated f-bombs, it’s more difficult to follow your train of thought. I can’t understand what you’re trying to explain because of the continuous “stops” in your sentences. And that’s if I’m *not* offended.

    Think about teenagers who use “like” at least four times in a sentence. Same thing, only less offensive. What if your marketing read like that?

    It’s one thing to use minor profanity occasionally in conversation. But in marketing, just NO. Because it comes across as someone who is talking down to me trying to show me how smart they are. It doesn’t work, and it’s highly unprofessional.

    Just no, OK? (says the writer who’s trying to quit swearing in everyday life because she’s around people who do it constantly and it’s really, really hard.)

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  13. Gina Li

    Hi, Michael!

    Such a juicy topic.

    Here’s the thing: I swear a lot in my personal life. It’s just how I naturally express myself. But I don’t do it with everyone because I understand that’s not everyone’s style.

    And I follow a lot of people whose brand is definitely edgier than mine. Who are really irreverent and make me laugh out loud. And who drop the occasional f-bomb.

    But I personally don’t feel comfortable using profanity in a business context. Not part of my brand either.

    What can I say? I’m a paradox.

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  14. Michael Myers

    I think it depends on what you are trying to do.

    If it’s all about you, then you will surely offend more people than if you don’t use profanity. You might lose some valuable relationships.

    If, however, you are mirroring your counterpart (customer, client, friend) and you can use the profanity without compromising who you are, it may be OK. Sometimes, this builds connection.

    Remember the old saying, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?”
    I think usually (in this, and almost all cases), it should be, “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.”

    And then there’s our rational intent often thwarted by the amygdal hijack…

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  15. Norman Daoust

    My rule of thumb is never say anything you wouldn’t want your 4 year old child saying in public!

    I developed that rule when my 4 year old said “oh, s…” when he dropped something on the floor. I immediately said “What did you say?”. He repeated. I replied, “That’s not a nice thing to say”. He responded, “That’s what you’re supposda say when you drop something”.
    I realized he was correct, because he must have heard some adult say that when they dropped something, so he knew it was ok to say that.

    I changed my speech to never say anything I wouldn’t want a young child to repeat in public.

    I have that same guideline in writing.

    I think that people who use profanity are acting unprofessional.

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  16. Bruce

    I don’t use profanity in speaking in any “formal” situation and rarely even in casual conversation. When I do use it, it is to put the exclamation point on what I am trying to convey. In writing, I never do so.

    Why? Because I like to think I am educated enough to make use of the wide range of words available to me to express my thoughts. In English we usually have a multitude of synonyms at our disposal, each having a slightly different connotation, allowing us to hone our meaning. Throwing in profanity is at best a blunt tool and in too many instances a nonce word, used without meaning or intent.

    What is meant by the F-bomb: he’s an F-ing idiot, it was an F-ing great party, what the F?

    Like the former President, whose vocabulary, at least in public, seemed akin to a 4th grader’s, people who pepper their language with profanity are either trying to be “cool” or appear to have limited vocabularies but have figured out that using “very” as an adverb over and over exposes that limitation.

    Maybe I’m just too old, but if your “authentic” voice, particularly in writing, is laced with profanity then I cannot help thinking that your “authentic” thoughts are pretty limited too.

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  17. Lynn M Thomas

    I cannot think of an occasion in decades of consulting, that a situation called for profanity. In a professional context, I am a No. Too many standards have been lowered that I do not view as making our present or future better.

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  18. Lisa

    It took me some time and self-discipline to use a larger vocabulary after my years of driving over the road Semi’s. I know it’s cliche’, but it really is a different world over-the-road and in truck stops. However, I try to use made-up versions to intensify my point without flat-out swearing . I have used, very seldomly, made-up versions in some newsletters I created in past employment. The clincher on that is, I knew who was getting the letter. Really-the bottom-line for me is cursing IS a part of our culture, and if you feel that best represents what you want to say, then say it.

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  19. Don Sadler

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many comments on one of your blogs, Michael!

    It’s sad to me how profanity has become so common in our society. Especially in media. Almost any word is acceptable in movies and TV now — except, of course, the N word. Nobody flinches at F bombs anymore. I’ve seen GD in print in mainstream publications. Dick (and not short for Richard) is now commonly used everywhere. Most standup comics’ routines are beyond filthy.

    I try never to curse — sometimes one slips out if I stub my toe or slam my finger in a door And I think I said a bad word on the golf course last week! But I can’t imagine using profanity in professional business communications.

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  20. Glenn

    The previous contributions pretty well cover the subject.
    When I think profanity is going to be helpful, I know for sure I’ve gone over the edge. For me, never! Keep it simple. Try not to offend others in your writing. Resorting to profanity seems beyond dumb.

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  21. Cynthia Mae Fromm

    I don’t recite Shakespeare when I slam my bare foot into a coffee table…BUT!

    Profanity should be excluded from the professional “realm”.
    It manifests an anemic vocabulary. AND the degradation of our culture.

    I love steak, but I don’t want it for dinner every night.

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  22. Biz Corrow

    I only use profanity on the golf course! I believe the “F” bomb was invented because of golf. I do not use profanity in my business presentations written or spoken because although it may not offend some it could well offend others therefore I steer clear of it. I need all the business I can get.

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  23. Michael Katz Post author

    Hi Everyone!

    Thanks so much for your comments and for reminding me what an insightful, experienced, and intelligent group of readers I have.

    Maybe most of all, I appreciate your demonstrated ability to disagree with one another without any animosity (not to mention profanity!).

    Feel free to keep the conversation going; I will be reading!
    – Michael

    Reply
  24. Jim Mall

    I have been in sales, marketing and training for 40 years. I can personally say that I doubt I have ever lost a sale or a customer because I didn’t use enough profanity in my sales presentation or training seminar. I don’t use profanity in conversations with my wife, children or grandchildren. When I do have an interview where my client may use profanity, it doesn’t change my style of speaking at all, that is their style of communicating and I don’t feel I need to match that because it wold not feel or come across as natural from me.
    I am in total agreement with Mr. Gagnon, well said.

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  25. Peter Levinson

    Wow interesting topic! My take is that it depends on the sector/audience. For example, healthcare providers: no. Digital healthcare: maybe. Music bands/producers: yes.
    And no, I don’t agree that using profanity will cause the decline of civilization! It’s just one of many communication choices.

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    1. Bruce

      I think there are two issues here – the first, which is what Michael originally asked about, is should you use profanity in your newsletter. And, maybe, as you say it depends on who your audience is.

      But I see a second issue. If you do use profanity in your newsletter, how does one uses it. Do you “save it” to use as an exclamation point or do you just sprinkle it around liberally as some people do in conversation. To my way of thinking, the latter, sprinkling approach comes across as fake since writing is an inherently more conscious form of communication, more akin to a prepared speech than to conversation.

      Reply
  26. Jim Stewart

    I have a pretty good profanity vocabulary when I want. But generally speaking, I would no more use it in a newsletter than I would on, say, LinkedIn. It tends to call attention to itself and take you out of the moment. And it’s not really necessary. I got a newsletter from a guy for a while who warned people in advance that it was casual and that he might use profanity. He published it and still got backlash.

    So, I vote no. I can hear profanity just about everywhere I turn these days. Nice to have a break.

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  27. Diana

    What a great question, Michael. I agree and have noticed that just about every program we stream lately uses the F-bomb like it’s ok! I believe I am becoming desensitized to it, and I personally don’t like that idea. I think it’s lazy, and even if it’s on brand I don’t think it’s a good idea in professional writing. I don’t want to sound like a prude, as I have been known to drop an F-bomb myself, but I wouldn’t do it in a newsletter, and I wouldn’t recommend it to a client. But ultimately it’s the client’s call.

    Reply

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