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I work in an office where there are 4 of us in the corners of a cube. One of the guys who sits in an adjacent corner acts a little strange. A few times a day (or more), he curses under his breath as he's working. They're just little things, along the lines of "Why does it [insert expletive]ing do that?" or "Such a [insert expletive] piece of [insert expletive]." It goes on for 15-20 minutes at a time.

Don't get me wrong--I'm sure plenty of people (including myself) think these things from time to time. The business of software development can be a real [insert expletive] sometimes, and I don't fault him for feeling frustration. It's the audible venting that I find strange.

Normally I'll put on my headphones during these quiet outbursts and ignore them, but recently I've been more worried as they're sounding more and more angry. I know I'm not the only one who hears it; the guy over the cube wall will jokingly remark "Tell me about it, [coworker's name]!" from time to time. My coworker seems to come out of his programming trance and laugh it off, but it hasn't changed his behavior long-term.

Is this something that isn't my business (it's not preventing me from getting my tasks done) or something I should bring up to him or someone else?

EDIT: Wow, didn't think I'd get so much feedback--thanks, everyone. Part of what made the behavior so weird to me is that no one else in my office does this. HOWEVER, I'm very glad to hear that this is by no means a strange occurrence in the world of software development (or offices in general). I appreciate the perspective.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Oct 10 '17 at 22:35
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    kinda appropriate: osnews.com/story/19266/WTFs_m – Olivier Dulac Oct 11 '17 at 12:10
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    @OlivierDulac: I read the title of this question, and that exact comic came to mind until I saw your link. I thought "this guy must be doing a code review" which is something I do myself. It starts out muttering under my breath, and reaches a crescendo as it resorts to screaming at the computer screen, and then pulling my hair out in disbelief. Then upon inspecting the commit history of that file I realize I was the one who wrote that code, at which point I rest my forehead on my hand and silently weep myself to sleep. Please don't disturb me. I'll come back around. – Greg Burghardt Oct 11 '17 at 14:49
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    I would be worried if an expletive-filled muttering or outburst never occurred among a team of developers, because it means that they're not detecting code smells or tripping over bugs. The odds of a perfect architecture being implemented perfectly and maintained perfectly by perfect developers are precisely zero. The odds of an imperfect architecture being implemented poorly and maintained by oblivious developers who never utter a word in confusion or rage are much higher. – Dr. Funk Oct 12 '17 at 15:34
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    Definitely not unusual - just depends on the company culture he developed that habit in. Sounds like a former engineer. – Omegacron Oct 12 '17 at 18:02

11 Answers 11

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Is this something that isn't my business?

This is not your business.

Continue to wear your headphones if the occasional cursing distracts you. And let the management of your coworkers' behavior be the problem of your manager.

the guy over the cube wall will jokingly remark "Tell me about it, [coworker's name]!" from time to time. My coworker seems to come out of his programming trance and laugh it off

This tells us that your coworker just has a minor habit when in the zone and perhaps under a bit of stress. Since it doesn't prevent you from getting your job done, it isn't your issue to deal with.

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    I think the guy over the cube wall is doing the right thing by letting the other coworker know they are all hearing. but as other mentioned, its an habit hard to stop. – montelof Oct 10 '17 at 16:53
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    "My coworker seems to come out of his programming trance and laugh it off" As a programmer, that's not something I'd really appreciate. If you must bring it up, do it at some other time. Knowingly jarring someone out of "the zone" is incredibly disrespectful, as it may take them considerable time to recover. Do so only if you absolutely must. – a CVn Oct 10 '17 at 19:42
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    OP said that their coworker does it "under their breath" (though audibly) and that this doesn't prevent them from getting their tasks done, so it's not an immediate problem right then and there. I'm not saying that it is never appropriate to bring it up; just to be courteous about knowingly bringing it up in such a way as to jar the coworker out of their zone. I'm sure it's possible to wait until a coffee break, lunch break, next morning, or whatever. (Just don't wait too long, obviously.) Not everything goes into the important/urgent quadrant; important/not urgent is also valid. – a CVn Oct 10 '17 at 19:53
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    Note that the number of cursing per minute is a pretty almost official standard way of measuring code quality see blog.codinghorror.com/whos-your-coding-buddy – Walfrat Oct 11 '17 at 10:40
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    The fact that he's asking about it here might imply that underneath it does bother...is shelling up under the headphones better answer than trying to talk to somebody about something? I might recommend the book "crucial conversations" if the communication part scares you. GL! – rogerdpack Oct 11 '17 at 17:55
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I'm going to answer this as if you were not a developer, mostly so that non-programmers can gain a little insight into this. If you are a developer, most if this will seem obvious to you.

No. Just ignore it. You say it's not preventing you from doing work, so there is no need for you to do anything about it.

As a developer I can relate to this guy so much. In short, we try to turn our brain into a computer, compute what the code is doing, then compute what it should be doing, spot the difference, and make the necessary changes. It's like trying to juggle 17 balls in two different patterns at the same time while solving math in your head. And sometimes the computer refuses to bend to our will. And the longer we stare at it the more frustrated we get and the more we feel like throwing the [insert expletive]-ing machine out of a window.

If you want to help, and the other guy doesn't have his headphones on (universal sign of "don't bother me"), I'd reccomend asking him whats going on. This will achieve two purposes. First you will get to be a rubber-duck, and second (if you are a developer), it will allow you to suggest something from an outsider's perspective ("have you tried bar-ing the foo instead of foo-ing the bar?").

To sum this all up, sometimes the computer is more stubborn than usual and we just need to be able to vent a little. This may take the shape of swearing at our computer screens. If you are unable to help, and it's not bothering you, then just ignore it. If it is bothering you, put on your headphones. And if it still bothers you, take the moment to stretch your legs and get a drink. Your developer friends will thank you for it.

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    +1 for the rubber duck. Nothing like placing the 17 balls down and explaining slowly what each one does to understand why you're juggling 17 rather than 3. – UKMonkey Oct 10 '17 at 11:01
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    100% this. Sometimes the computer seems to purposely find new inconceivable ways to confound developers in a sort of test of wills in the war of man versus machine. Climaxing as the last error is resolved and the correct output is displayed on screen...only to realize you've now introduced two new bugs in unrelated components. A few expletive riddled outbursts are necessary and therapeutic. – DasBeasto Oct 10 '17 at 12:44
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    So much this. Though I wouldn't mind if someone else asked me to keep it down, or at least not to curse, if the environment is supposed to be fairly quiet. If the cursing hit an extreme or the wording made someone uncomfortable (like if it was racist or sexist) I would imagine that it would cause an issue. But otherwise, I've been known to mutter "what the...?" when programming. And sometimes to lightly cheer myself when I solve a tough problem. – user3685427 Oct 10 '17 at 18:12
  • And most developers are at least competent in a few languages that are syntactically similar (and diverse). It can be much like an American-English teacher failing a British native for their first error or word-usage-conflict, but letting you turn it in again. Occasionally, just every once in a while, she'll even lie to you about where the error is. I tend to do light debugging with MsgBox in .NET, and have typed that, rather than alert so many times, or console.log() / debug.print(). – Regular Joe Oct 13 '17 at 17:13
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Is this something that isn't my business (it's not preventing me from getting my tasks done) or something I should bring up to him or someone else?

No, do not bring it up to anyone.

This person's actions are not stopping you from doing your work, so leave it alone. You do not want to earn the reputation of being a snitch and damaging other relationships within your organization.

If you report this activity, you will have most likely made an enemy of your co-worker, and for this trivial of a thing its not worth it.

One option you may want to consider, if feasible, is to ask your manager if there is another seat you could work from. I would consider this as a last resort if it bothers you enough, because then the "Why did you move?" questions will need to be answered.

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Maybe this is a culture thing. As an Englishman working in the UK I find it common (even normal) for developers to swear at whatever they are working on especially when they are struggling. A more reserved colleague would occasionally swear at something then apologize, mostly to himself. There has even been synchronized swearing from about 40 people when the site power went down.

If someone tried to report people for swearing while working at their desk they would probably be looked at as over sensitive. i.e. It would reflect worse against them than the individual that was doing the swearing.

Its is an office full of adults, not a nursery. That said, telling your manager "He's a [bleep] idiot and he can go [bleep] himself" is definitely crossing a line!

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    Another Englishman checking in, I can confirm we have the same attitude about swearing where I work. Swearing at your work is fine, swearing at a person is way over the line. We had a power cut yesterday (for the first time in ages) and I did utter "£*#! nuggets" a bit louder than normal. Also, Danger Mouse for the win ;) – Reinstate Monica Oct 10 '17 at 10:53
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    @miroxlav I often hear that large companies tend to focus on image and uniformity dogmatically rather than pragmatically. We aren't customer facing, so there's no need to worry that our swearing might offend or that our jeans and t-shirts might not create a good impression. What does matter is that the work gets done and the customers are happy with the results. – Reinstate Monica Oct 10 '17 at 11:17
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    @AndyJ – you know, from the perspective from personal maturity, people are seeking to get their personality difficulties under control sooner or later because there is not such a difficulty which won't affect you on the long run (affecting your self-satisfaction or credit on other's eyes). So if someone is happy with their status quo all the life, I can understand it, but in my company's culture, many people prefer to improve. For example. last five years, many colleagues started doing sports, improved their diet and even stopped swearing. But perhaps our company is an elite? :) – miroxlav Oct 10 '17 at 12:41
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    @miroxlav I don't think swearing is objectively part of personal maturity and self improvement. Sports and diet are good examples of things that are objectively self improvement, as they result in physical improvements. Swearing can subjectively be self improvement, if you feel that it's a bad thing, but then you have to look at why it's a bad thing. The obvious effect is that it can cause people offense. "I'm offended that you swore!" "why?" "because swearing is bad!" "yes, but why?" "because it's naughty?". This can lead in to more tricky situations such as "it's against my religion". – Reinstate Monica Oct 10 '17 at 13:32
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    @AndyJ – even atheists will disagree on this with you on this what you label here objectivity or subjectivity. But I won't follow more here in comments. If you like to discuss, throw me an invitation into chat. And yes, naughty things typically do hurt people, it is quite obvious, isn't it? If you won't learn this earlier, you will find it later, maybe many years later (and maybe you'll die sooner than you find it). That's your way. :) – miroxlav Oct 10 '17 at 14:27
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Is this something that isn't my business (it's not preventing me from getting my tasks done) or something I should bring up to him or someone else?

No. If it's not preventing you from doing your work and it helps him to blow off some steam, why take the risk of creating bad blood with your co-workers by bringing it up as an issue?

I've worked with a lot of people over the years who behave in this way and it seems to be pretty common, especially in the tech industry. Assuming there are no young children around when he's doing it, I really don't see the harm.

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    Good to know I'm (he's?) not the only one. :) It helps give me some perspective. – The Spartan Oct 9 '17 at 15:51
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    Heck, even I mutter under my breath sometimes when I'm frustrated with a coding task, though I do my best to avoid profanities. :-) – AffableAmbler Oct 9 '17 at 15:55
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    @AffableAmbler: I'm the polar opposite. If I'm not cussing a piece of code then it's probably because I'm busy reading the news or browsing SE. – NotMe Oct 9 '17 at 16:01
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I personally am the generally the loudest person on my floor, so while I try to keep it clean, I have some perspective about being overheard.

I would say it is always fine to say something to him. As a co-worker, you have a right to be able to discuss how his behaviour affects the environment around you.

He may struggle to mitigate it, and you should respect that, but as long as you're polite about it, it is his responsibility as a professional to support a good working environment.

Another issue is if you have clients coming into the office. In which case, you are LITERALLY DOING HIM A FAVOUR. Nothing can torch a developer's chances of promotion faster than shouting "What the f*** is this s***" across a floor while upper management are trying to resolve an important meeting.

But reporting someone to HR for this is just going to cause unnecessary friction. If you did want to do so, I would recommend just asking to have your desk moved to a quieter area of the office, and thus focusing on your own productivity.

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I used to be a bit like your colleague, when I first started working. If it got above muttering under my breath, a colleague who sat in my line of sight would catch my eye and I see sympathy in his facial expression (except when I'd broken his concentration, when it was more of a glare). Knowing that someone had noticed was enough to get me to tone it down, and there was nothing unfriendly about it.

I'll still curse the machine much more than I ever would a real person (except a bad driver), but inaudibly if in company that could possibly mind.

I've also worked with people like this but louder. They've tended to be just vocal and demonstrative, no more of a threat to the office peace than if they were using the mildest language. One colleague once was told to tone it down. The volume stayed the same but we'd hear "'king piece of sugar printer" several times a day. To most of us it was exactly the same disturbance as the original phrasing.

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Sounds like you're trying to look for trouble.

It also seems like the strange one here is you, if you've never felt frustration in solving a problem and cursing under your breath. Perhaps you code perfectly without ever running into difficult issues?

I would advise you to refrain from reporting your colleague to HR. This is a common behaviour among developers and will only make you look vindictive.

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Should we assume automatically that "doing something about it" means being repressive, like telling him off or reporting him?

If being friendly is an option, I would go that way. Just say "hi" and have conversations with him, and then casually ask what was on his mind when he made such and such remark. Don't make him wrong, just ask. He will probably say plenty about it and you might have to listen. If anything, the idea that someone is listening should get his level of stress down and thus his need to complain loudly.

And then, when there is sufficient rapport, you could bring the issue up in the smoothest possible way. Perhaps he will just laugh and he will try to improve.

Why doing it? Well, likely the guy is just being nerdy: he is a good chap after all, just a bit lonely so he speaks to no one in particular; and that happens to worry you. If all goes well, the guy will stop being a "guy" and you've got a new friend in your cube.

(And, at worst, if the guy really happened to be toxic, he would let you know through some antisocial behaviour, and you would have witnesses in your cube; you've done nothing wrong, you've just been nice; and as long as you kept being polite, that would give you additional leverage if you really needed to report him.)

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Individuals that suffer from Tourette Syndrome can be prone to outbursts, usually swearing. At the same time, they can be technically competent and great problem solvers. If your co-worker has TS, there isn't anything you can do about it as it isn't behaviour that can be modified.

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    The OP didn't specify if his coworker has TS. What if he does not? – DarkCygnus Oct 10 '17 at 21:02
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    @GrayCygnus Then this answer doesn't apply. I believe he was just adding a potential perspective. There's already a lot of answers, that he shouldn't have to repeat for his "if not" case – Cruncher Oct 11 '17 at 11:02
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I'd suggest you should quietly (and without making a big deal about it) mention it to your (mutual ?) manager.

Why ?

Well the occasional remark or comment is to be expected. I'd be astonished if I didn't utter something like "Son Of A Motherless Goat !" (a personal favorite :-)) several times a day. But that's one sentence every hour or two, not a stream of them for twenty minutes.

But the behavior of doing this for extended period continuously (you said 15-20 minutes of this), would be a sign of considerable stress, IMO, and possibly that needs to be mentioned to a manager who can make sure this person is not getting swamped, or overworked or stuck or frustrated or has health problems that need dealing with - there's no end of reasons why someone can be like that.

However beyond mentioning it quietly and discretely to his manager you should do nothing. And you should not mention it twice. One brief remark. Maybe "Hey, is X OK ? He seems pretty wound up to me these days." or something like that.

Remember : You. Can't. Fix. Everything.

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    Actually, swearing relieves the stress. – gnasher729 Oct 15 '17 at 1:22
  • @gnasher729 Honestly I think swearing for 15 to 20 minutes at a time is not relieving the stress unless you've been shot in the last 15 to 20 minutes. :-) This is a person who sounds way past normally stressed to me. – StephenG Oct 15 '17 at 5:31

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