There’s always one person in the office who gets offended about other people’s taste in jokes, music, movies, etc. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert suggests that the popular Not Safe For Work warning isn’t about warning the recipient of a message about the message’s contents; it’s a warning to the recipient to see who’s around first in order to avoid unnecessary drama.
Most everyone by now recognizes the initialism NSFW (‘Not Safe For Work’) as a prudent, pre-emptive content warning. When an e-mail, tweet, or other communiqué arrives in your queue with the tag NSFW in the subject, you should appreciate that the sender has assessed that consuming the content that they sent you while you’re in the office may upset someone, and there may be consequences. Therefore, if you’re actually in the office (or in a public place, or around children, or in church, etc.), then you should probably think twice before clicking the link or otherwise viewing the content. It might contain nudity, violence, strong language, potty humour, politics, or nearly anything else that someone around you might consider offensive. The sender’s warning could also be stated as ‘Consume At Your Own Risk’.
The practice of tagging hyperlinks and files as potentially being NSFW is an appreciated courtesy borne out of people’s bad experiences communicating over the Internet. Nearly everyone has experienced an incident of going to the wrong website thanks to a type or a misunderstanding (e.g., the old ‘whitehouse.com’ URL, which used to be owned by an adult entertainment company). Most users have also received messages from well-meaning friends, family members, or co-workers that were meant to entertain, but turned out to have been a bit… inappropriate.
Such mistakes can be embarrassing, horrifying, or even job-threatening depending on who observes the questionable content. Even people who enjoy edgy subjects can be embarrassed to be associated with examples of their favourite content in places (like the office) where such content is frowned upon. That’s why most adults will place a warning on their messages that the joke, photo, video, or link they’re sending holds the potential for embarrassment; the receiver is responsible for evaluating his or her immediate environment before consuming the content, and for accepting all responsibility for any potential consequences they suffer if they make a bad decision.
Back when I was the head of IT for a military organisation, we were subject to extremely strict limitations on what sort of web browsing and electronic sharing we could do when using government systems and networks. Such restrictions made perfect sense to just about everyone. Unfortunately, the rules we were told to comply with were often so over-written that they opened more loopholes to prosecution than they closed. When the people who wrote the computer use regulations listed dozens of prohibited activities, they inadvertently painted themselves into a corner; they expressly forbade specific acts and elements, thereby tacitly making hundreds of unlisted acts and elements permissible (by default). I tried to mitigate that headache by including this simple admonishment in our User’s Handbook:
‘Never put anything in an e-mail that you would be embarrassed to see in the newspaper Remember: these are official government records, and may be turned over to the public.’ 
As rules go, it was simple enough for 99 per cent of the users and supervisors to understand. The few people who didn’t quite get it could be quietly taken aside and sorted out fairly quickly.
The trick is, it’s often very difficult to work out what is and is nor considered ‘acceptable’; most of the time, ‘appropriate’ is entirely subjective. It varies from person to person, and group to group even within the same company. Different people naturally have different tastes and tolerances based on their life experiences. Some people become more open to new ideas and less bigoted as they age and travel; others grow increasingly sensitive to anything outside their preferred definition of ‘acceptable’ as their worldview contracts.
This subject came up in the office a while back. Most of the staff was out on holiday, leaving a half dozen or so workers slaving away in the cubicles one morning. The lion’s share of the company was enjoying a well-timed extended weekend; the only people hanging about where those of us with no vacation days available. Team morale was actually very high that day – with the bosses out, people felt relaxed and cheerful, free to get work done. Jokes flew back and forth over the cubicle dividers.
Around midday, someone made a joke about a new pop artist’s latest video that no one else had seen… so, naturally, everyone asked for the video’s URL so that we could get the joke. After a three-minute coffee break, everyone acknowledged that the reference was a good one, and that the joke teller had crafted a good quip. The video viewing led to a discussion about obscure and unappreciated bands. Examples and samples were requested and provided, some good, some awful.
I was the only member of the crew that enjoys German Neue Deutsche Härte music, so one of the videos that I offered for consideration was Rammstein’s 2006 song Mann gegen Mann (‘Man against Man’). I shared it for two reasons: first, because it’s a catchy tune that I think nicely presents the NDH music style. Second, because (if I recall correctly) the track was considered controversial when it debuted that American TV and some radio stations refused to play either the song or the accompanying music video. Fortunately, YouTube has the video (in the spirit of the column: it may be NSFW).
As I’d suspected, no one batted an eye at the music video’s actual content. Most everyone on our team is admirably cosmopolitan and well-travelled. German artistic expressions idiosyncrasies are simply hand-waved away as ‘uniquely German’. Also as I’d suspected, folks who prefer more mainstream pop and Electronic Dance Music were disconcerted by the driving intensity of the band’s guitar work and by lead singer Till Lindemann’s daemonic singing voice. After Rammstein, we changed gears to consider Deadmau5’s video for his song ‘Ghosts N Stuff‘. 
I’ve been thinking about that encounter for a while now, though. It occurred to me after-the-fact that when I’d deemed the YouTube-approved version of Rammstein’s video acceptable to share, that I’d neglected to properly frame my ‘appropriate content’ analysis in terms of bystanders.
Most introductory courses on communication focus on the basic elements of the sender, the message, the medium, the receiver, and feedback sent from the receiver back to the sender. My wife teaches that interpretation of comms theory to adults in the Boy Scouts program as part of leadership development. I know that this functional model works, because I’ve observed a lot of scout leaders apply it to better express their points when we’re out doing volunteer work in the community. It’s a fairly effective way to frame the concept of misunderstood messages. It falls short, though, because it doesn’t account for the inhibiting effect of third parties.
That’s really the problem that we have with NSFW content: it’s not necessarily the sender or the receiver that needs to be considered when reading the content warning; the receiver needs the warning in order to remind them to consider the possible reactions of other people who might also experience the message while the receiver is consuming it. This includes cubicle farm passers-by, fellow train passengers, the person standing behind them in the queue, etc. With some obvious exceptions (e.g., hardcore adult llama shenanigans) most NSFW content isn’t inherently safe or not-safe for the modern workplace until after someone decides that it is. The person who reacts negatively to a given item is almost always (90 per cent plus) going to be someone who happened to see, hear, read, watch, or otherwise consume the sender’s content even though it wasn’t sent to them.
Content is like a photon in that respect; if you remember Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle from school, you can’t measure both the position and the momentum of a particle at the same time. That led to the much more famous Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment, where you can’t determine whether a notional cat in a box is either alive or dead until you open the box. I appreciate that this is a lot of quantum mechanics references for a snarky IT column; let’s simplify it and say that any given item of content (e.g., a music video, text-based joke, photo, etc.) is simultaneously ‘acceptable’ and also ‘not-acceptable’ at the same time until such time as an outside observer perceives the content and, thereby, makes the content either ‘acceptable’ or not by their own standards – not by yours.
That, at its heart, is the problem with content consumption in the workplace. It’s rarely about only one of just two people (i.e. the sender and the receiver) disagreeing over the appropriateness of a message. Those errors happen, sure; sexual harassment, hate speech, and provoking speech all exist in the sender/receiver world, and are regrettably common in the working world. More often than not, though, the sender will have correctly judged the receiver’s compatibility with the joke/photo/video/vine/etc., and the horrified reaction to the sender’s questionable content came from another person who just happened to be present when the receiver opened the message. The unintended recipient had a nice dramatic freak-out, called HR about the sky falling in, got righteous, hurled some questionable accusations, and blam! …someone wound up receiving a reprimand.
Often, too, the IT staff gets an unwarranted bollocking for having failed to (somehow, magically) prevent the ‘offensive’ content from appearing in the workplace. That’s why most IT departments establish Acceptable Use Policies for their organisations. These do/don’t lists and ‘appropriateness’ interpretations are usually crafted to preempt such problems. Unfortunately, a great many AUPs are made more restrictive than they need to be because the writers are trying to account for not just the sender and receiver of any future, theoretical content, but also for all potential observers of said potential content. No written policy statement can possibly take into account all of the arbitrary, capricious, and irrational ways that a notional human being can become ‘offended’. It’s impossible.
That’s really why we need to be moderately circumspect at work when it comes to what we read, what we listen to, and what we watch on our PCs, fablets, and mobiles: unless we can guarantee that what we’re consuming can’t be seen or overheard, there’s always the possibility that some random stranger will take an interest in our activities, consume some or all of what we’re consuming, and take umbrage. A polite and mature person who didn’t fancy what they saw would simply shrug and move along, realizing that it wasn’t their content, and therefore is none of their bloody business. Unfortunately, far too many people in the working world are neither polite nor rational; they feel that they have final approval authority over everything that everyone else does in their presence – even when they’re in a public space (yes, I consider cubicle farms to be a public space).
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we cave into the pressure of potential future disapproval from megalomaniacal busybodies. We constantly circulate through increasingly diverse social circles, and none of us have a ‘right’ to take offense at-will at someone else’s speech, media, mannerisms, or garments. We’re sharing the world, so we need to learn how to get along with one another. Step one towards that objective is learning to be tolerant of others’ differences, especially when there’s no injury inflicted by the encounter. You don’t have to like my taste in German heavy metal music, and I don’t have to like your non-stop humming of Disney show tunes. To each his or her own, and move along smartly.
As a Texan, I’m usually up for a good verbal scrap for the sheer joy of the argument. That being said, I appreciate the desire to maintain a civil and drama-free environment – especially in the office. It’s one thing to take umbrage with another person’s media tastes in the public square, because you have the ability to walk away without consequence and with very little effort. It’s quite another to be subjected to someone else’s vile taste in pop music on a crowded bus or train; if you can’t easily walk away from the unwanted encounter, then the forced public consumption of another’s content becomes potentially provocative. It’s much, much worse when forced exposure comes in the workplace where you can’t walk away without potentially losing your livelihood. A train ride, by its nature, is the temporary congregation of strangers who won’t otherwise interact with one another again; the workplace is like an arena where you have to square off against the same inane gladiators day after day, fight after fight. Being stuck in a staff meeting where someone decides that everyone simply must check out Nicki Minaj’s new music video is like getting booked into a hotel room in one of the outermost circles of hell: you don’t want to be there, you hate every second of it, but the available alternatives are all worse.
That’s why I prefer to advocate for the middle path of simply not deliberately provoking strangers. I figure that if we generally make an effort to leave one another alone, then everyone will be more likely to get along. If we’re together and can’t easily escape one another, then I recommend that all of us keep our mobiles muted and displays shielded. If I invite you to see or hear what’s on my screen, then you can either accept or decline at your option and I won’t be offended. If I don’t have your permission to share my content with you, then I won’t consume it in such a way that you’re subjected to it. Similarly, if I glance at your screen while you’re consuming a cloyingly sweet Internet kitten video, I’ll leave you to it. I won’t berate you for your (deplorable) taste in media. I won’t call HR because my precious sensibilities were offended either. That sort of temper tantrum wastes both your time and mine, to no good effect. Enjoy your kittens in peace.
Finally, I’ll make a good-faith effort to look around me and assess the likelihood of you coming in range of my screen the next time someone sends me a link tagged NSFW. It’s an act of courtesy, nothing more. That’s the minimum effort required to maintain workplace tranquility… and you’re not entitled to anything more than the minimum. You shouldn’t expect to accept anything less than the minimum, either.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some new Dutch Symphonic Metal music to listen to while I build my PowerPoint slides. I’ll be on headphones. Carry on with your day.
 Fiscal Year 2011 User’s Handbook, version 6.0, page 31.
 I have to say, the Deadmau5 track that my cubicle mates shared convinced me to start listening to his work on Pandora. I never would have considered trying him out had it not been for that exchange of musical examples.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.