I Swear…Growing Old is a B*#ch

21st Century Culture, Gender at Work

The emergence of the FCKH8 video has made me think about my habitual use of curses to gain attention and credibility professionally. If you haven’t seen it, the video is a 2:35 minute public service announcement that uses the shock value of little girls dropping f-bombs to draw attention to women’s rights issues.

While the video has been attacked as too much, I am no stranger to using profanity to gain attention and credibility. As a petite woman entering the workforce in the 1980s, I had a hard time gaining the trust and confidence of my older male colleagues and clients. I found that swearing like a sailor made me less like some precious little thing and more like one of the boys.

The key to this technique is context. Little girls swearing get your attention, teenage boys swearing, not so much. So I started thinking, has my context changed so much that what was once quirkily charming and precocious is now just, well, raunchy?

Clearly no one is going to mistake me for an ingénue anymore. I’m no longer the seemingly delicate flower recently emerged from behind the walls of Catholic school and a women’s college. I’ve fought my share of work-related battles, gone toe-to-toe with the powers that be at times, developed a much harder shell.

Is my shell sufficiently and obviously hard enough now that my superficial efforts to harden my image are in some way working against my best interests? Maybe a kinder, gentler vocabulary is in order.

This is tricky territory. We women of the baby boom prided ourselves on making our way in a man’s world by being a little tougher and a little smarter than the old guys. But as time goes by the old guys are in fewer number and of less consequence. The majority of the people I now work with are now younger than I am.

How does a tough talking mature woman come across to a younger generation? Do I have too many hard edges? Does it look like I am trying too hard, like I am weighed down by baggage from another era, fighting the last war?

The problem for women like myself is the same as it has always been: we don’t have adequate role models. None of the women in my family had careers, but I had one grandmother who was small like me and used four letter words liberally and with gusto all her life. While it was interesting having a grandmother who could out curse any sailor (and out drink them, but that’s another story), it also made her unapproachable.

There is no manual on how professional women should grow old gracefully. I know a lot of women would say it’s not possible, and we need to defy age: Men get distinguished and women get old. Women have to fight age with every weapon available. I’m not sure I’m up for that battle, and I wonder if it is a lost cause.

When all else fails, I always go back to the parting bit of advice one of the professors gave us when we were queuing up for college graduation: “remember, grace and dignity at all times!” So in the name of grace and dignity, I’m dialing back my colorful vocabulary.


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