What the F*ck
Profanity. Growing up it was not okay to use curse words. In fact, I feel lucky that I grew up in a home where calling someone stupid was seen in the same light as garden-variety curses. We were raised with a more than proper perspective on communication — the importance of choosing words carefully and using them wisely. Granted I also was raised with the blessing of privilege — white, upper-middle-class, Suburban, educated privilege.
Those things color many aspects of life — not the least of way is the way one comports themselves. On top of all that, I’m a word nerd. Always have been. My voracious appetite for books led me to plow through all my own— shelves of which lined my room, groaning with the weight of everything from an entire set of World Book Encyclopedia to an array of dictionaries and other reference books, to sets of fiction (CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia among my favorite), to an eclectic mix of non-fiction (American history and of course, books on dogs). When I’d consumed all my own and there was no room to add more, I headed to the hall closet — where deep in the shadowed recesses, another set of shelves, these holding books that my mother had kept from her growing up and then college years.
This is where I met new friends — Shakespeare, Chaucer, Ibsen, Chekhov, and others. By the time I was in first grade, reading at a 6th-grade reading level, it was clear that language and the art of communication would saturate my life … and indeed it has.
The point is that words matter. What words I choose. What words I choose to leave out. In what context I choose to place them. How they are emphasized (or not).
So, profanity. Where does that come in?
When I was 14 years old I was working at a radio station in downtown Philadelphia. Plucked from a large group to participate in a weekend internship program for local school kids, I’d aced it and taken the top honor when the program ended. So I did what any kid would do after that. I called the General Manager of the station and asked for a job. After an amusing interview process (the story of which is fodder for another day — a story about a young girl meeting a woman who I now realize was probably the first truly badass woman in business I’d meet… but more on that another time) they hired me.
I was ripping wire copy, labeling tapes and helping sort information from police scanners. It was awesome. Being, of course, in school, I worked weekends and holidays and on many occasions, there was a fellow on the editor’s desk who scared the ever-loving-crap out of me. He had the foulest mouth of any individual I’d ever met. I think it’s safe to say that every other word out of his mouth, was fuck. He also yelled. A lot. He didn’t just yell to get things done, he yelled at people and often that yelling was more than lightly saturated with profanity.
Time after time I’d leave work feeling horrible, somewhat shaken and utterly perplexed about how to handle this. I mean, don’t forget, in my world at the time calling someone “stupid” was a cardinal sin. One night after my dad had picked me up and we were driving home, he noticed I was particularly quiet. He asked how work had gone and, with some reservations, I told him how this man spoke and spoke to me and how it made me feel.
My dad listened to my story thoughtfully and was quiet for quite a while after, seeming to consider how to best share his response. Finally, he said this:
“Cathy, sometimes people will communicate in a very different way than you do. Sometimes the way they communicate will be hard — it may be offensive to you or even feel hurtful. In these situations sometimes in order to properly communicate with those people, it means that you need to make some changes in how you communicate. You don’t change to be like them. You change so you can let them know you heard them and you understood them. It is so you can get their attention and then get your own point across. It doesn’t make it right, but sometimes being right isn’t the point. Remember, compromising and communicating is not about being someone’s doormat or letting them take advantage of you. It’s about holding your ground.”
As usually was the case when I had a chat with my dad, I understood exactly what he meant.
Fast forward a week to my next shift at work. I got in early and was sitting at the production assistant desk to get the rhythm of the shift and see what news was percolating. At that point, the editor discovered that someone on the prior shift had made a mistake and he had the wrong copy. He whirled on his heel to face the desk and berate the offender. When he turned, the person at the desk was me and so I bore the full brunt of his screaming … for something that I hadn’t done.
I waited for him to finish and then took a deep breath. Then I spoke.
“I just got here. My shift doesn’t start for another 20 minutes and I have no idea what you’re talking about, so stop fucking yelling at me. You know what? I’m fucking tired of your fucking yelling at me all the fucking time. You are a fucking asshole. And you know what? No one fucking likes you.”
What that I stormed out of the newsroom and went immediately into the bathroom and burst into tears because I was pretty sure I was going to get fired.
After about 15 minutes I knew it was time to get ready for my shift and there’d been no ruckus. So I splashed water on my face, gathered myself and went into the newsroom, where things were chugging along as though nothing had happened. No one said a word to me, including the editor. And from that time forward, he never cursed at me again. He still yelled, but it was different and I could feel that I had his respect.
The point of my telling this story is this … I just saw a post from a friend about a store on Fillmore Street in San Francisco that had a sandwich board set up on the sidewalk out front. It read: “You’re doing fucking great”. Now, normally I’d think that was kind of amusing — especially was it to be sitting outside a store or business where that type of sentiment fit with an overall theme or energy. Not the case here. This is a super bougie, overpriced clothing store in the middle of a deeply residential neighborhood with no fewer than three schools (of young kids) very nearby and many families that walk by with small kids. In other words — entirely irrelevant, out of context and done for no reason other than to get attention … and in so doing, create a pretty negative experience for the neighborhood around it.
Years ago I was in New York and came upon a yoga clothing store in the Village. Its name — Fuck Yoga. In the window was a black t-shirt with red lettering on the front with the name. I walked inside and bought it. The shirt sits in my closet mostly unless I’m in some pretty specific settings because it’s generally inappropriate and offensive, when in the wrong context.
So does this store putting a sign on their sidewalk offend me because they say “fucking great”? No. They offend me because they choose their language with ignorance on many levels. What they were trying to do was get attention and perhaps even, in a strange way, offer passers-by some sort of sassy inspirational statement. I don’t have an issue with those things, but for crying out loud if you want to have a saucy statement to catch attention — don’t be so fucking lazy.
Today’s Gracious Gratitude. I am grateful for:
- My dogs
- Quiet Saturday nights at home curled up on the sofa with a big salad, fuzzy socks, my dogs and a great movie on the TV
- Being able to support another downtown business and its owner trying to carve a great idea out of the asphalt
- Overcast, chilly days
- The way winter air smells
- That tomorrow is Sunday