When I want it to stick, I give it to them loud and dirty.
--Gen. George S. Patton, WW II Commander
About once a year this topic comes up in a consulting gig. Still, I was intrigued to see Harvard's Dan McGinn address the issue under the title, Do good leaders swear? What initiated his blog was Obama's comment to NBC's Matt Lauer on the Today Show that he "intended to kick some ass" regarding the oil spill. As expletives go, it was pretty mild. I thought it was a response to the pundits' cry that Obama should get more emotional about his feelings. But as McGinn notes, presidents don't normally use an expletive in formal interviews. Presidents have long been known to use expletives in private. JFK and LBJ were profligates, in private.
Actually, Obama's use of the term appeared deliberate, an attempt to use profane language to connect with voter's anger.
With my background as a rhetorician, I've become aware of how profane language "works." Note, that I used the term "works." Rhetoric is the study of how language works to achieve its objectives. As a former Christian minister, I also bring a unique context to the issue. For me, however, the purpose of language is to connect and identify with others in order to achieve my objectives. Those objectives may be to inform or persuade. And I look at cursing through those lens.
Language to me is always instrumental and not magical. Some, however, take a more magical perspective on language. When, for example, they read in the bible that one should not use the "Lord's name in vain," they'd take that literally. Orthodox members of religion usually take some language and images magically. But they're not the only ones. On one occasion my advisor for my Masters, a specialist in oral interpretation, and I got into a conversation relating to the use of various versions of the bible in the church setting. She was not at all a church-goer or even religious. This would have been in the '60s, and though my church was evangelical, I did not normally use the King James, but rather preferred a more contemporary version in everyday language. But, she suggested, the King James has such beautiful language. It's magical. That's precisely why I don't want to use it, I said. It doesn't connect with today's world. Although the Semitic world is far more versed in cussing, that language was omitted from both the Hebrew and Greek translations found in the King James. The apostle Paul, for example, almost compulsively makes his points with the use of rhetorical questions and then an equivalent answer of "hell, no" throughout his epistles. Yet that language never appears in English translation. In each instance, Paul uses the expletive to forcefully drive home his agenda.
My approach to expletives or cussing flows out of that background. Cussing has a number of useful functions, and I believe it is quite appropriate within certain contexts. But cussing is instrumental, not magical.
First of all, the constant use of expletives that we see in the movies causes them to lose their usefulness. You can only listen to "f____ you" so many times without it becoming meaningless and tiring.
Cussing can be used as an initiatory rite. Dan McGinn's blog gives a hilarious example of such use. In the most memorable scene of any academic paper I've read lately, (Stuart) Jenkins, after working in the packing department for a couple of months, uses nuclear-grade profanities to challenge an alpha-male co-worker, a guy named Ernest: "Well f-----g get on with it then, you lazy ----." Other workers gasped, but in fact, the incident led Jenkins to be invited to join group activities from which he'd previously been excluded. "[Jenkins] had identified the profane linguistic 'initiation rite' for inclusion in the packers' social group, and used it successfully," the authors concluded.
On numerous occasions I've used cussing for similar constructive purposes with new clients. Clients with no personal experience of me, knowing from colleagues that I have a ministerial background, wonder about how to treat me. One client, having gotten my name from an outside consultant, put his cards on the table in the first few minutes of our face-to-face meeting. He indicated that he was feeling a bit oppressed by the culture, that he had saved some "f___ you" money, and wondered about the extent to which my ethics would apply to working with him. I proceeded to use an expletive early on, a strategy which immediately and obviously bonded him to me. As a result I consulted not only with him, but with nearly all the execs in the firm, a project that netted more than six years of work. In other words, social swearing in a professional context can convey confidence and an immunity to what people think, and in return, people are attracted to those qualities in a leader. Did the ends justify the means? Yep.
Still on other occasions, cussing is used not only to bring focus to issues, but also to identify issues of value. In a previous blog, I commented that one of my favorite clients understands my occasional use of ordinary language as cussing. In a team setting, he once made what I viewed as a stupid-ass suggestion, to which I commented, "that's an intriguing notion." Understanding my term "intriguing" as an expletive, he came right back with, "so you think I'm full of shit. Explain your reasoning." The team howled with laughter and I proceeded to answer his request. I'd argue that in some settings you have to use an expletive to gain attention or to get people to think.
My wife would say that I can be thick-skulled, and have to be hit hard with language to get the importance of some issues. Indeed, I have only one memory of her use of an expletive in more than 50 years of marriage. A use so shocking, that I immediately got her point. Twenty-five years ago, when I finally decided to leave teaching to go into business, I muddled around with that idea a long time before making a decision. Sitting on the couch one evening, I said that I'd finally decided to leave the seminary and go into business for myself. Her response? "It sure as hell took you a long time to make a damned obvious decision." Two expletives in one sentence, and years later, I've not forgotten the import of her statement. She got my attention.
It should be obvious from the above that swearing is context specific and works well only when you know and understand your audience. You can misevaluate your audience, but I've found that there are occasions when the most appropriate and intelligent action is use swearing precisely because you know your audience will disapprove and you know you'll be able to gain and keep their attention. It's a calculated action because some audiences so strongly disapprove of swearing (a common middle class allergy) that they can't think after you do it on them.
Research by Baruch and Jenkins, mentioned above, groups profanity into two types: "social swearing" that's used in casual conversation and "annoyance swearing," the "Oh s--t" that surfaces in stress environments. When I'm frustrated by some actions in private, I typically cuss. I've found "nuts" inadequate for my feelings of frustration and much prefer "s---t." However, I've also found it absolutely fascinating how my Kentucky, Methodist grandmother expressed her affection of me after I committed a humorous, smart alecky action. Typically, and with a big smile, she'd say, "You little shit." It was clearly a term of endearment. Yet, I never remember her "cussing" and using that term. It was obviously not a magical swear word.
I should also say that I do not swear around my grandchildren, although I have a high school freshman now. In a couple situations where I've alluded to a cuss word, I noticed that he really got it and smiled, maybe snickered at me. One client in marketing research, a well-educated single mom (PhD in psychology) once asked me how to stop her junior high boys from swearing. Their teacher had called her about the problem. I suggested that she reframe the issue, and have a conversation about when/where it was OK to swear, and when/where swearing would get you into trouble. She loved it! I learned later that her boys paid close attention to that conversation and followed her recommendation.
I'd thought about Obama's cussing for several days and thought I should write about it, suggesting that it might be viewed as a form of pandering, but wasn't quite certain how I wanted to go about it. A big thanks to Dan McGinn and his blog for a few suggestions. Actually, I've thought for years about how swearing really works, what it sounds like, and how our expletives, beginning with the letters a, s, f, b are only the tip of the iceberg. Organizations such as churches, synagogues, political parties, and non-profits do a lot of swearing at the their opposition. They just don't use expletives. The Old Testament writers could be pretty pointed with their cursing. In one of the Psalsms, the writer addressing an oppressor affirms, "Happy be those who take your little ones (your little bastards) and dashes them against the rock."
I'm curious. Is it appropriate to using swearing as a bonding or motivating device? Do smart managers use cussing as a tool? What do you think?