Bob Sutton, Stanford University professor and author of The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't was recently interviewed on HBR's Ideacast on "The Subtleties of Strategic Swearing."
He argued that using an occasional curse word can convey a "level of contempt unparalleled by non-taboo words"...there's no way to convey some expletives with polite speech. Even President Obama has employed this technique, recently notes HBR.
...during an interview with Matt Lauer on NBC's Today Show [regarding the BP Oil Spill], 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.
Occasionally swearing "as emotional intensifier can be quite appropriate" Sutton said. More from Bob's blog:
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.
The comments on the podcast were widely varying though, with many arguing that expletives are just a crutch:
Any manager who cannot show passion without profanity is sadly lacking in ideas, vocabulary and purpose, and is unable to convey a clear message. Take the profanity out of any typical rant, and there is not real message left. Profanity is an expression of emotion, but never of ideas. Profanity is never uplifting or empowering, but rather the opposite.
Sutton's post also details many nuances in choosing to speak so strongly. The are definitely situations were swearing is out of the question. What's your @#$%&* take on strategic swearing?