HBR editor Dan McGinn has a great post called Should Leaders Ever Swear? that has generated a lot of comments and is very thoughtful. He ends with a great question "Is it appropriate to use it as a bonding device or a way to motivate people? Do smart bosses use the f-bomb as a tool? What do you think?"
As the author of a book with a mildly dirty title, I have probably thought about this question too much and have blogged about all sorts aspects of it here. But I guess despite my use of profanity in my book and as a regular part of how I talk (although having children did lead me to swear a lot less at home and everywhere else), I do have some thoughts about Dan's great question:
1. If you are not sure, don't do it. There are people who are very offended by what I would think of as even mild obscenities. As a result of having students pull me aside in early in my career, and ask me not to swear (I swore a lot in class when I was a brand new professor), I now rarely swear unless I am quoting someone when I am teaching executives or Stanford students. The one big exception is when I say the name of my book, The No Asshole Rule, or teach a session on it, as it is impossible to do it without saying the word "asshole" a lot.
2. There is a big difference between "backstage" and "front stage" norms. In many places, swearing is private meetings is fine, but is unwise when you are being observed front stage. You can see these norms at play if you listen to the amazing tapes made by both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, as they swore constantly backstage, but not in public. Of course, you have to be careful not to slip, as when George Bush -- who thought the microphone was off -- commented that a New York Times reporter was a "major league asshole" at a campaign rally.
3. Swearing on rare occasions can be very effective for the shock value. If you swear constantly, then people will barely notice it. But when you do it rarely, it can have a big effect. In fact, this phenomenon helped get me interested in The No Asshole Rule. Years ago, at my department at Stanford, one of my colleagues -- who rarely if ever swears at meetings -- had a big impact on our group by arguing that we should not hire a renowned but difficult researcher because we did not want to ruin our group by bringing in "assholes." From then on, the no asshole rule discussed as a hiring criteria. I believe that if he was the kind of guy who swore constantly, we never would have heard it.
4. The norms of the group or organization are crucial. I have worked in some places that if you DON'T swear you are looked upon with suspicion because, well, that is how everyone talks and it you don't swear, it means you are not part of the group. For example, when I was a teenager, my dad owned a company that sold and installed furniture and the like on U.S. Navy ships, and I worked for him now and then. Everyone in the business swore like crazy, and if you didn't you were seen as an outsider. Other groups are opposite -- I was once pulled aside and told that a CEO was offended by my use of the word "crap" during a speech. And then there are national differences, as what is clean and innocent in one place may sounds dirty in another. As I blogged here a couple years back, when I was doing PR for The No Asshole Rule on BBC, the presenter told me that saying "asshole" now and then was fine, but she asked me not say "arse" as it would offend many in the UK, especially her mum!
5. Finally, there are times when you may want to offend people. Perhaps this is my inner asshole speaking, but as I discuss in my chapter on the virtues of assholes, there are occasions where people are incompetent, insensitive, clueless, or mean spirited, that to get their attention and perhaps even to dish out some punishment they deserve, that barrage of angry expletives can be quite effective. Of course, as a strategy, this should be used in small doses and with proper precautions, but I remain rather proud of a strategic temper tantrum that I aimed at a group of clueless and arrogant Air France employees some years as back. As reported in The No Asshole Rule:
We made it to the transfer desk with about 15
minutes to go. There were perhaps eight employees behind the desk, there was no
line, only employees talking to each other. After spending several minutes
politely trying to get them to pay attention to our plight, I turned to my wife
and kids and said, “I have to start yelling at them, I have no choice, I will
stop as soon as they start helping.” So I just started hollering about how late
we were, how badly we had already been treated, and that they needed help us right
now. I was really loud and nasty. When they actually started paying
attention to the problem, they realized how late we were and started
scrambling. As soon as they started helping, I shut-up, backed away from the
counter, and apologized to my kids – explaining to them again to them that it
was a strategic temper tantrum. My calm, nice, and rational wife Marina then
dealt with them (so there was a bit of good-cop, bad-cop too). They produced
the boarding passes quickly, pointed at the gate and said, “run as fast as you
can, and you might make it.” We barely made it, but we did make it.
I see that I did not mention my swearing during the Air France episode. I definitely dropped some f-bombs, and seem to recall suggesting they were "fucking idiots." Looking back at this experience, I still have no idea what else I could do to get their attention as they were ignoring us so aggressively. Perhaps screaming at them without swearing would have been equally effective!
I am curious about your thoughts on the wisdom of talking dirty, especially the strategic use of foul language.