Oh %&#@!: Record year for swearing on conference calls in 2021

Feb 03, 2022
Sentieo research shows more than 160 transcripts contained expletives last year

Is swearing acceptable on the conference call? Whatever your thoughts on that, it’s clear that expletives are on the rise, according to new research from financial and corporate research firm Sentieo.

It describes 2021 as ‘a record year for expletives in conference calls’ with 166 transcripts containing swearing in 2021, up from 104 in 2020.

‘It’s not surprising that the stresses and strains of the past two years are reflected in some of the language used on conference calls,’ comments Gary LaBranche, president and CEO of NIRI. ‘We can only hope the ‘Expletive Index’ has reached its zenith and conference call vocabulary will revert to norms as life and work become less stressful.’

But while it might be tempting to blame it all on pandemic stress, Sentieo’s research recorded swearing on 112 conference calls in 2019, 92 in 2018, and 123 in 2017 and – interestingly – management is responsible for the vast majority of it. Of the 166 transcripts with an expletive in 2021, management was responsible for swearing on 133. The rest came from analysts or unidentified shareholders on the conference call or at the AGM.

A style choice

With its data stretching back to 2005, Sentieo notes that more than anything, swearing on conference calls seems to be something of a communication ‘style preference’, with ‘a handful of companies’ dominating the top 10 of swearing.

This idea of a management ‘style’ is backed up by the fact that the record for highest number of expletives is held by a communications company transcript from 2017, with 25 hits. An airline transcript from 2009 comes in at number two and third place is held by a financial services transcript from 2021. Sentieo doesn’t release company names.

While the firm says it doesn’t know what’s driving the trend, it notes: ‘We do know that business formality is on the way out (necktie sales are a fraction of their peak in 1995) and workplace authenticity is in, according to a survey by Deloitte.’

Dan Aldridge, managing partner at Asbury Investor Relations, says he has certainly noticed an increase in loose language. ‘Part of it is just the more casual, relaxed nature the work environment has taken on’ coupled with the fact that we’ve all been working from home for the past 18 months or more, he tells IR Magazine. There’s also the issue of the millions of retail shareholders who have entered the market – all of which results in a shift in attitudes.

‘Usually you’ll hear [swearing] because people are passionate about something – it’s rare that you hear it in prepared remarks, especially from the management team,’ Aldridge says. But he also notes that how expletives are received very much depends on your expectation from management.

‘If that’s the CEO’s or CFO’s style, I think it’s fine,’ he explains. ‘There’s nothing wrong with it. I think when somebody who’s very conservative all of a sudden starts using expletives – because he or she is being defensive, perhaps – that sends up all kinds of red flags.’

Aldridge says this loosening of tongues is not just happening on conference calls but also in conferences, fireside chats and even one-on-ones and, although most swearing on conference calls comes from management, he advises IR teams to take control of the Q&A – especially in a virtual world with many new retail shareholders ready to question management for the first time.

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