The BP oil spill has devastated the Gulf of Mexico, pummeled the oil company's market value, and created a lingering problem for the Obama Administration, which has been criticized for responding too cerebrally, without sufficient forcefulness or authenticity.
The spill has also provided an interesting historical footnote: during an interview with Matt Lauer on NBC's Today Show last week, Obama declared that one of his goals during meetings on the crisis has been to determine "whose ass to kick."
As profanities go, "ass" is a relatively mild one — it's been commonly used on network TV shows for years now. Still, it's not generally a term that presidents use in formal interviews, and it created a round of chatter among political pundits.
Presidents have long been known to utter profanities in private — Politico has compiled a comprehensive guide to the history of White House cussing — and occasionally to be caught doing it via the Oval Office taping system or the familiar I-didn't-know-this-microphone-was-on snafu. (Classic examples are here and here.) Obama's utterance wasn't a slip, though; it appeared deliberate — a strategic use of profane language to try to show that he's angry, and to try to better connect with voters' emotions.
It's an example of how curse words, long considered a vice, can actually be used constructively.
It's a phenomenon that's the subject of a 2007 study published in the Leadership and Organizational Development Journal by Yehuda Baruch and Stuart Jenkins of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. They surveyed existing literature on why, when and how people swear in professional settings and conducted focus groups to better understand the practice. They also sent co-author Jenkins on an undercover mission as a temp worker at a British mail-order warehouse, where he observed workers' use of profanity and tested out its effects himself.
In the most memorable scene of any academic paper I've read lately, 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.
Baruch and Jenkins group workplace profanity into two types: "social swearing," generally used in casual conversation, and "annoyance swearing," the "Oh s--t" variety that's especially common in high-stress environments like trading floors. They see value in both types of usage. Social swearing "can serve to manifest and signal solidarity," they write, while annoyance swearing "provides a 'relief mechanism' for the release of stress and tension."
Their analysis resonated with me. Like most people, I try to limit my use of R-rated language, though in truth I'm more concerned with this self-censorship at home around my children than around colleagues at work. But in thinking about instances in which I've used profanity at the office, it's almost always "social swearing" in private conversations with colleagues, in which I've intended to show candor, strong feeling or to try to create a we're-all-in-this-together esprit de corps.
While I've worked for bosses who drop the f-bomb now and again, the most senior executives in organizations in which I've worked have generally avoided working blue. As a reporter, however, I've encountered corner-office types who casually swear during off-the-record asides in interviews. While they may be using this language simply out of habit, I've always considered it an attempt to bond — a naughty, I-shouldn't-be-saying-this-but-I-can-trust-you act that sources sometimes use to ingratiate themselves with reporters. I've never known what to make of the phenomenon of the swearing CEO — it's an aspect of leadership I'm still trying to figure out.
As an act of political theater, it's not clear what, if anything, Obama's use of a mild expletive accomplished. But the kerfuffle made me think about the role profanity should (or shouldn't) play in the language of leadership. 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?
Dan McGinn is a senior editor at HBR.