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This has happened a few times. The university is an average, good university in UK. One professor said lately "I'm so sick of this f****** pandemic." Another time another lecturer said "When you find yourself in a situation when you feel like: how do I solve this f****** problem? You should just relax and...". These are verbatim quotes. In each case it had a humorous tone to it and the students laughed. Is this acceptable behaviour? Because I was confused.

I find it very inappropriate but that might be because I come from a more conservative country where you'd be embarrassing yourself if you used vulgarities in a situation like this.

There were other examples over the years but I can't remember them exactly. So it's fairly common. Do universities in general allow that?

EDIT: Thank you for all your input. I just wanted to add that it was never my intention to report anything. I just found it unusual and was curious if this is common.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Feb 12 at 9:28
  • Reminder that if you want to add general comments which do not seek clarification or to improve the question, there is the above linked chat. Additional examples, anecdotes, arguments and discussions will be deleted without warning. If you want to argue or discuss, do it in the chat.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Feb 13 at 16:31
  • 1
    Sorry, I don't understand why you keep removing the tag "united-kingdom": could you please explain before I reinstate it?
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Feb 17 at 18:50
  • @MassimoOrtolano I think this is relevant to any English speaking country, not just UK. Feb 17 at 19:02
  • As noted in some answers, this kind of things vary a lot by country, so not all English-speaking countries are the same for what concerns the possible reactions (and note that every country, regardless of the language, has likely an f-word equivalent). The tag just gives an indication to the answerers that this is happening in the UK, and also allows the tag followers to be alerted that there is a question of interest, but it doesn't strictly limit to UK the possible answers.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Feb 17 at 19:09

10 Answers 10

137

You're in a place where swearing, especially when not directed at another person or used as abuse/slur/bullying/etc, just isn't that big of a deal among adults, so I do think this is mostly a cultural difference between you and the professor.

I don't think anything should be done to confront this professor (or report them to administration or anything), as long as the language is not directed at another person, used as a slur, etc, in which case it also doesn't particularly matter if the word itself was profane, as many non-profane words are used in those circumstances. It doesn't seem to me like they've done anything wrong.

It's a bit less than the strictest standards of professionalism to swear, though, and I'd generally recommend against it. I think it's a bit cheap as humor. So I'd answer your title question "no" if you were a professor asking me and were truly uncertain. However, I do think most of us are in some way or another quite ****ing sick of this pandemic, and I can't find fault with anyone who chooses to use sufficiently strong language to express that sentiment.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – cag51
    Feb 14 at 2:39
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This is just British culture for you. Consider it part of your learning experience.

British people are generally polite and patient, sometimes even exceedingly so, but will from time to time emphasise their feelings of frustration through swearing. It really isn't a big deal, typically it is just a way of showing that, under all that veneer of repressed civility, they are, indeed, human, and have their limits.

In a way, it is a form of self-deprecatory humour (something British people love to indulge in). They are aware that using swear words "lowers" them a bit (makes them look less perfect and in control), and they do it on purpose, to emphasise their own weakness, as a form of ice-breaking.

It's actually (when used in the way you describe) an attempt at creating a closer bond with their interlocutor, in a "we're all in the same sh*t together, aren't we?" kind of way.

However, the same word used aggressively against another human being (e.g. "wipe that f*cking smile off your face!") would be entirely inappropriate in a work context, University or otherwise.

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    A good analysis and observation. Not thought about it that way before. Feb 11 at 11:08
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    It's always worth noting that there are many things that you (and I) do without thinking that would probably horrify other people in other cultures.
    – Valorum
    Feb 12 at 12:54
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    This also feeds into the general British concept of "banter". If a Brit greets you with "how are you?", they're being polite. If they greet you with "how are you, you wanker?", they consider you a close friend because both you both know that the insult is banter. :) That would be overstepping the mark for a teacher and their students, of course, but that's further along the depth of friendship from "I feel comfortable to swear occasionally" which is an indicator that we don't need to be completely formal with each other.
    – Graham
    Feb 12 at 16:02
  • @Graham we have a professor here who has been known to use "fuck off" as a friendly greeting to other staff It's completely in character and of no concern to those of us on the receiving end - but does cause some surprise among others
    – Chris H
    Feb 14 at 15:20
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To answer your question "Do universities in general allow that?": I am not aware of any university in Europe which has rules about the use of swear words in teaching, or any other form of communication, except for general rules about non-discriminatory, harrassement-free etc. language and behavior.

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For a university in the UK, this isn't a big deal. The assumption at a university is that you are dealing exclusively with adults, and they are capable of hearing profanity while learning. Professionalism generally entails limiting profanity to a lower level than might be appropriate while at the pub, but it is considered acceptable to use it sparingly. I've dropped an occasional S-bomb or F-bomb while lecturing, just to stress an important point or add a bit of humour. Profanity should not be used as a means of deriding or bullying a person, but it is acceptable for a lecturer to use if for emphasis of important points, so long as they don't go overboard. (Academics have a great deal of freedom and discretion in setting the tone of their own lectures, so even if some go overboard with profanity, this might be considered to be part of their "academic freedom".) This is probably a cultural difference between Western countries and certain more conservative countries; you'll get used to it. I'm in Australia, where profanity in professional settings is probably even more common than in the UK.

In relation to this issue, you might also be interested to note that we've had some questions on this site about whether or not lecturers should use racial slurs when quoting texts (or censor these slurs), either in scholarly research or while lecturing (see e.g., here and here). Even in this case there is a fairly large contingent of academics who think it is appropriate to state the racial slurs verbatim in discussion (there is also a fairly large contingent who don't like this). So even when dealing with some pretty nasty racial slurs, there is an expectation that adult students can hear these words in class in an appropriate context and remain composed. (Obviously the distinction here is that your lecturer is adding "fuck" to the conversation organically to emphasise a point, instead of quoting it from a relevant text under discussion; it would not be acceptable to use racial slurs for the same purpose.)

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It's not exactly workplace-professional conduct, but it's not unusual, and it's not particularly frowned upon in my experience.

In my own university course, several of my lecturers were quite comfortable with the use of swearing in their conversations. No more than is normal in day-to-day life, but they didn't filter themselves.

There was a basic assumption that "we're all adults here" and normal adult rules apply.

The general attitude of not coddling children was pretty pervasive in fact, one lecturer went out of his way to tell us that he wasn't required to pass anybody. If someone was here to goof off, or wasn't going to take it seriously, he'd rather they just left.

I think the unfiltered language was a deliberate choice to hammer home that we're not in school anymore.
University is for adults who chose to be there and choose to learn, and if we can't handle things like an adult, we don't belong there.

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  • Idk why everybody being adults makes rudeness acceptable? Are people only civil when there is children around? I don't see how age matters.
    – Neil Meyer
    Feb 12 at 10:25
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    @neil I think the expectation is that adults won't copy behaviours they see verbatim in situations where it wouldn't be appropriate for them to do so. I swear in front of a kid and they repeat it to the vicar. I do it in front of an adult and they think about it and choose how they feel about that language.
    – Flexo
    Feb 12 at 14:13
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Interesting question. I myself generally refrain from profanities and use moderated and controlled vocabulary in class to try and maintain a professional environment.

However when teaching comparative computer languages and esoteric languages in particular it becomes difficult. The esoteric language designed by Urban Müller in 1993* can cause one to pause. Being professional, one just uses the language's name without blinking, but it can shock some of the more delicate students in the room.

So, in some subjects, profane words are part of the subject and are included in the course; but I would not use them for shock effect unless it was needed for pedagogic purposes.


* You can look it up yourself. However my favourite variants are Ook! and Whitespace....

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  • JSF**k is another fun one which raises the same issue. Feb 11 at 11:11
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The behaviour you describe sounds rather unprofessional, but will likely be tolerated since most students and staff will not have a problem with it these days. Those who do not approve of such language will, as a result, feel out of place objecting.

My experience of this from studying at three different Russell Group universities in the UK has ranged from small workshops where the organiser asked in advance if anyone 'has any serious objection to swearing' (no-one did) to one of my lecturers apparently telling 'dirty jokes' to an audience of about 300 first-year undergraduates.

They know that they are being unprofessional and would likely stop if someone objected, but then start again the moment that person is out of the room. Most people just don't care though.

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    "Does anyone have any serious objection to swearing?" In that situation, even if someone did, she would probably remain quiet.
    – GEdgar
    Feb 11 at 0:59
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    @GEdgar Yes, definitely. I think he realised this and was not being very sincere
    – Person
    Feb 11 at 1:08
  • Just because nobody objects is hardly an justification. You think if somebody gave me written permission to murder them that I'm not going to jail?
    – Neil Meyer
    Feb 12 at 10:29
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This is an interesting situation and has never happened to me although I have attended hundreds and hundreds of hours of mathematics lectures.

It did happen once that a lecturer swore under his breath once or twice because the software for giving virtual talks was so useless, but it was more of a humorous moment and everyone understood his frustration. In that case, it was more out of frustration, and not for actual deliberate emphasis, which seems unprofessional and which I have not encountered even after attending several hundreds of hours of lectures.

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  • The Covid outburst just sounded like a very frustrated person which is understandable.
    – Neil Meyer
    Feb 12 at 10:06
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I think that some of these answers are probably missing some subtleties. The first thing to realize, is that when it comes to things like this, there isn't really a single homogenous "British Culture", and attitudes to swearing will differ from local to local, between social classes, backgrounds, political groupings etc. It can be difficult for even a British person to work out the correct acceptable language is in any given situation.

The second thing is that not all swear words are equal. This is fairly obvious, but what is less obvious is that the relative offensiveness of a given word varies from country to country, and sometimes between groups within a country. So s**t is generally regarded as mild, f**k is stronger, and will shock some, but not that many, where as c**t is generally reserved for situations where offense is intended. Unless you are in Scotland, when c**t is far more acceptable.

In the UK, blasphemy is not really even regarded as swearing. Words that refer to bodily functions are somewhere in-between, and then words that refer to a persons innate characteristics are the worst. If a lecturer is using the N word, or any other racist epithet, words that refer dismissively to homosexuals, words that refer to phyiscally or mentally disabled people etc, then I probably would complain, unless they themselves possessed that characteristic (A gay person is allowed to use the term p**f, but others aren't).

All this makes for a very complex situation. Our jobs as educators is to give people the best chance of learning. Sometimes emphasis and humor can help with this, but it can just as easily impede it. So while I swear frequently in the pub, I generally avoid swearing in a lecture or other formal didactic instruction situation. However, one-on-one or in small groups where I am able to assess how people might respond, I will tailor my speech to what I think the other person believes to be appropriate.

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    Since you mentioned the extreme status of "c**t": The female eunuch points out that there's an implicit misogyny in the way vaginally-based expletives are used as especially powerful insults, and that strikes me as something definitely to steer clear of in a educational (or, frankly, any) setting. Feb 12 at 11:47
  • Ian, I assume you meant ("fucking"?) "subtleties" in your first line... :) Feb 13 at 22:01
  • @paulgarrett yeah Feb 13 at 23:31
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Unlike many swear words, the F-word is sexual. A case could be made for saying that its use constitutes sexual harassment. The primary meaning of the F-word is sexual, so blurting it out in a lecture hall -- which presumably contains a handful of young women -- is not appropriate. If any of them feel uncomfortable, they could make the prof's life pretty miserable: "I really can't attend class where the professor is continually talking about sex!!"

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    If you do the maths, it turns out that women engage in sexual activities on average as many times as men, give or take a few percent.
    – pipe
    Feb 14 at 2:41
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    @pipe ...but not with creepy old professors.
    – B. Goddard
    Feb 14 at 3:22
  • Glad to see you back. I think you raise a valid point, but some of your language choices raised concern. I have suggested an edit that will hopefully satisfy all parties. Cheers!
    – cag51
    Feb 15 at 0:11

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