Dilemmas: How can we stop these men swearing?

Virginia Ironside's Advice Column

Julie and some other female work colleagues are upset by young men in their open-plan office, who work with a company loosely connected with theirs. These men use bad language all the time. So does their boss. What should she do?

VIRGINIA'S ADVICE

There was a time, too recently for comfort, when I thought it was rather smart to swear. It seemed hip and groovy, and, amazingly, attractive. Thank goodness it dawned on me after about a year that, far from being sexy and sassy, it was, in fact, rather tragic and embarrassing. I went on the Jimmy Young Show and told a listener she should tell her boyfriend to "piss off" (or was it worse? I hope not) and the next time I was given a warning.

At the time I thought this was astonishing, but it was the first drip of realisation that swearing might in fact be offensive to other people. Then, in this column, I described someone has having a "fuck-it-and-chuck- it" mentality to women. Quite rightly I got back a letter from a reader who upbraided me and said I should have said "bed it and shed it".

Suddenly it dawned on me that swearing, whether you're a middle-aged woman trying to jump on a youth bandwagon, or a young man trying to jump on to a grown-up bandwagon, is absolutely pathetic. It simply screams: "I'm insecure and tragic and have to put up a loud and don't-care front because I'm absolutely dying inside."

It's not only tragic; it's also rather offensive, pointless and, sometimes, frightening. Since the revelation that swearing's horrible, I've become a strictly "botheration" and "fiddlesticks" person.

But how does Julie stop the young men on the desks along from her from swearing? She could be direct, and ask them not to do so. Who cares if they think she's Mary Whitehouse? After all, she doesn't have a personal relationship with them.

Or she could go to the boss and simply ignore the fact that he's an arch- swearer. "I hope you don't mind my asking you," she should coo in a motherly way, "But several of my colleagues and myself become rather upset when some of your staff swear. Would it be possible to ask them to tone it down? I'm sure they wouldn't speak like that in front of their mothers. It would make our working environment so much more pleasant. I would ask directly and will do so if you recommend it. But I suspect that only your word could have any effect on them." She should clasp his hand in hers, stare into his eyes, and appeal to the chevalier in him. A complaint is always better received when the recipient is acknowledged to have huge power to make people feel happier by stopping whatever he's doing. Making him feel he has less power and is being pushed around won't get her anywhere. Going over the top can only further her cause, too. A young man threatened by a 6ft 6in bouncer with his fists clenched may well feel angry; but faced with a middle-aged woman who appears to be slightly, just slightly, deranged, he becomes absolutely terrified.

Julie could, of course, introduce a swear box, at a pound a time, all proceeds to the orphans of Kosovo. This would be highly embarrassing for all the swearers. They could hardly refuse to join in, since they'd look like mean creeps; instinctively they would start to think before they swear. And, most likely, they wouldn't.

Or she could ask the chief swearer, very quietly, in the lunch hour, whether he has a problem. "We're ever so worried about you all," she could say in a concerned way. "You seem under so much stress; we'd like you to know that if anything is bothering you, you can always talk to one of us. It's sometimes easier to talk to a woman." Or is that too cruel? It would certainly work.

READERS' SUGGESTIONS

Why are you upset?

Consider exactly why the swearing is upsetting you so. An incredible amount of unnecessary offence is caused by illogical taboos on the public use of certain words. Like it or not, social values change; there is little point in allowing yourself to be upset if the behaviour of other people does not accord with your own standards. If this language were directed at you, I would agree that you would have cause for complaint, but as these people are merely communicating with each other, why should it upset you? I do, however, feel that it is antisocial for anyone to "yell" in an open-plan office and think it would be acceptable to complain about this.

CHRIS TARBARD

Macclesfield, Cheshire

Men just do swear

Young men will always swear loudly in offices, particularly when their computers crash at awkward moments. In my experience young women are just as bad - if bad it is. The brutal truth is that young men will take notice of a woman in her forties with whom they have no family, social or employment ties, only if she is the kind of woman whom they naturally respect.

But it takes a genuinely confident, likeable, experienced woman who in ordinary circumstances gets on with men to get away with this kind of complaint. If you cannot find such a spokesperson, say nothing. You're in employment, you can presumably pay the rent, and at least the people next door are lively, rather than whinging, withering no-lifes. Is that all really so bad?

H STEVENSON

Brighton, Sussex

Speak up, or shut up

You have two options: do something, and the situation may improve, or do nothing, and it may go away - but I doubt it. Tell the men you can hear everything they say, and would they mind not using bad language because it offends those with more extensive vocabularies. If things do not improve, at least you can feel you had the courage to confront them.

If you do nothing, then you will just have to bear it. Do understand that most men have limited means to express their frustrations.

GRAHAM WRIGHT

Sydenham, London

Next Week's Dilemma

My old friend Teresa told me she's broke and might lose her flat, as she's often out of work. She's a cook - but won't lower her prices for buffets. She has two children, but pride prevents her from asking her ex-husband for more money. I really respect her for this. I wrote her a cheque for pounds 1,000, which she eventually accepted. Now she's taking her son and her boyfriend on holiday to Bermuda. I'm resentful and angry. I meant the money to go on mortgage repayments. My husband says it's up to her how she spends it, but I feel so bitter, it will be hard to see her again. What did I do wrong?

Yours sincerely, Linda

Anyone with advice quoted will be sent a bouquet from . Send letters and dilemmas to Virginia Ironside, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182; e-mail dilemmas@ independent.co.uk, giving a postal address for a bouquet.

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