Recently, one of the first items I saw on my morning news feed was “Adele turns tables on TV execs with finger gesture.” This comes on the heels of M.I.A. making the same gesture during a performance of Madonna’s new single Give Me All Your Luvin during the Super Bowl half-time show.
Gestures and verbal swearing are a pervasive part of today’s communication repertoire. Etiquette, as you would expect, frowns on these means of communicating. But it’s not just polite society that frowns on it. During my business etiquette seminars I point out that swearing is becoming a bigger and bigger negative issue in the workplace, one that could even get you fired. A 2008 Ladders.com survey found that 70% of executives would fire an employee for an etiquette-based offense, and the top named offense was swearing.
The real question here is: Why is swearing or flipping the bird a problem? The answer: It’s a direct frontal assault on the recipient of the expletive. People don’t like to be attacked, and swearing, as well as their gestural counterparts, is a form of attack. When an action can be classified as something other people consider hostile, threatening, aggressive, or offensive, then etiquette tends to say, “Don’t do it. It’s rude, and it’s disrespectful.”
There’s another equally valid reason not to fire an F-bomb or flip the bird. It puts the focus on you and your reaction, rather than on the possible offensive or annoying thing that triggered it. Take Adele for instance. She actually had a good reason to be frustrated. The “suits”, as she referred to them, decided they had to cut her off because the show was out of time before she was finished. Unfortunately for her, instead of keeping the focus on the foolish decision of the suits, the focus immediately turned to Adele’s bird flip. Instead of the lead-in stories being about the award she won, the lead was the bird she flipped. In fact, she had to apologize to the audience, making sure they understood her gesture wasn’t meant for them: “I’m sorry if I offended anyone, but it was the suits that offended me,” Adele said. “Thank you all very much, and thanks to my fans. I don’t want them to think I was swearing at them.”
Same for Madonna and the M.I.A. situation. That one gesture is what people remember and talk about. A few days later Madonna felt compelled to voice her annoyance at M.I.A.’s gesture when she told Ryan Seacrest: “I didn’t know anything about it. I wasn’t happy about it. I understand it’s punk rock and everything, but to me there was such a feeling of love and good energy and positivity, it seemed negative.”
Instead of their accomplishments and their performance, the attention was on a gesture. When you drop an F-bomb or flip the bird, it’s all about the word and the gesture, and neither reflects positively on you.