Should your boss ever tell you to “Shut the **** up” or that your work is “Complete and utter ****”? While such an outburst might prompt some employees to quit or complain to HR, not everyone agrees that respect for people’s feelings should be elevated above full and frank discussion.

The question of what is healthy for relationships between colleagues and necessary to get the job done – to let your feelings out or to couch criticisms carefully – has come to the fore among developers of the Linux kernel.

The debate centres on the colourful outbursts of Linus Torvalds, developer of the Linux kernel, well known for explosive rants at fellow kernel coders in which he has described other people’s work as “total ****” and characterised others as “****ing morons”.

In a recent discussion thread Sarah Sharp, an Intel developer, took exception at Torvalds’ tone and called on him to behave in a more respectful manner.

“Violence, whether it be physical intimidation, verbal threats or verbal abuse is not acceptable. Keep it professional on the mailing lists,” she said.

Torvalds is insistent that his cursing is not only acceptable, but necessary.

“The fact is, people need to know what my position on things are. And I can’t just say, ‘Please don’t do that’, because people won’t listen.”

Diplomacy vs brutal honesty

From his perspective, it’s more efficient for managers to be clear about how they feel about their colleagues’ work than to tiptoe around issues and let people continue to waste time working on the wrong things.

“I definitely am not willing to string people along, either. I’ve had that happen too – not telling people clearly enough that I don’t like their approach, they go on to re-architect something, and get really upset when I am then not willing to take their work.”

Sharp maintains that being abusive adds nothing that couldn’t be communicated in a more civil manner: “Tell me, politely, what I have done wrong, and I will fix it.  You don’t need to SHOUT, call me names, or tell me to SHUT THE **** UP!”

“If you misjudge someone’s emotional state for the day, your yelling at them is not productive.”

Yet for Torvalds, excessive politeness and shying away from conflict leaves feelings to fester and can ultimately result in colleagues acting in a more destructive manner towards each other.

“I’m *also* not going to buy into the fake politeness, the lying, the office politics and backstabbing, the passive aggressiveness, and the buzzwords. Because THAT is what ‘acting professionally’ results in: people resort to all kinds of really nasty things because they are forced to act out their normal urges in unnatural ways.”

Aggression from co-workers

Research into animosity in the workplace has found that aggression from co-workers, whether direct or passive, leads to higher staff turnover and bad feelings towards an organisation.

But does Torvalds have a point in believing that a bit of coarse language is just part of plain speaking and necessary to get the job done? And that the alternative is underhand manoeuvring and lingering resentment between colleagues?

Or is that simply excusing bad behaviour? When you can’t be sure of the effect the language you use will have on another person, is it your responsibility not to throw insults their way?

The debate about co-worker conduct in an online discussion thread throws up another question, does remote working and the rise of the virtual office make for ruder organisations?

 Are people willing to be abrasive and critical of others in a way they wouldn’t be if they had to sit next to them? And is it necessary to compensate for the lack of feedback from social cues such as body language by being more direct? 

As Torvalds puts it: “On the internet, nobody can hear you being subtle”.