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Never offend a captive audience

By Phil Factor,

I was cheered to read Scott Hanselman's recent blog post about the use of profanity when writing about technology. A long time ago, I had an excellent tutor in my writing, who put the matter very clearly:

"Write what you choose to when the reader can, in turn, choose not to read your work; but when you are writing about Technology, you have a captive audience. They need to read your work to keep abreast of the technology. Don't gratuitously offend them. It is not the action of a gentleman, D____it!"

My tutor was not a stranger to bad language when roused, but he had crystal-clear boundaries. When in the pub, or at a party, your audience can walk away when your words are offensive, but if they can't, then it is bad manners.

Technical writing, if done well, is read by a wide international audience. Blasphemy, Innuendo or locker-room jokes may work in laddish society, and give our words a smug contemporary feel, but they can be deeply mystifying or upsetting in other cultures. We are subconsciously misled by the fluency with which other cultures can read and speak International English into believing that there is also a shared 'urban' western culture, with common values. There isn't, and shouldn't be.

The workplace has changed radically within living memory, in terms of its diversity. Some professions have failed to adapt, but technologists have a good track record in making the necessary changes; for here, again, you are within a group of people who are there for a specific purpose, and where behavior that is tolerable in a monoculture becomes embarrassingly inappropriate. Swearing in the workplace, both spoken and written, is surprisingly resistant to change. I'm not prudish, I hope, but I loathe its presence in the workplace, just because it seems so inconsiderate to people who may be offended by it and where, in the workplace, there is no escape from it. Nobody really minds the occasional lapse under stress or a word spoken in frustration, but it is when it becomes habitual or an affectation that it grates.

Swearing is like smoking; it is a hard habit to break. It can also be hard to define. What is allowable? My suggestion remains, "if you can find it in Shakespeare, then you can quote it, but nothing else." After all, in our professional communication, and in the workplace, it is best to put everyone at their ease, because they'll then listen to your message so much the better.

Phil Factor.

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