Power Players And Profanity: It Can Be &%#@ Risky Presidents and other powerful people sometimes drop a bomb too close to the microphone. It's not always a mistake. There's a strategy to swearing, but what works and what doesn’t when it comes to profanity in high places?
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Power Players And Profanity: It Can Be &%#@ Risky

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Power Players And Profanity: It Can Be &%#@ Risky

Power Players And Profanity: It Can Be &%#@ Risky

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For centuries, people had little idea what went on in their leaders' private conversations. But with the rise of recording equipment, we've gotten a few more insights. Richard Nixon's Watergate tapes, for example, revealed a side of him that hadn't been widely seen - he likes to swear.

(Soundbite of Watergate tapes)

President RICHARD NIXON: (Unintelligible) and say I want the (bleep) and I want a (unintelligible) now. Get it done.

NEARY: These days, the use of profanity may be more than just a slip of the tongue. Here's Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz responding to a question from an interviewer who insinuated her company wasn't moving fast enough on new technology.

Ms. CAROL BARTZ (CEO, Yahoo): I don't want to hear any crap about something magical that the fine people of Yahoo are supposed to do in this short time, so (bleep) off.

(Soundbite of cheer)

NEARY: And last month, President Obama used some strong language about the people cleaning up the BP oil spill.

President BARACK OBAMA: We talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers - so I know whose (bleep) to kick.

NEARY: As it turns out, our leaders sometimes swear strategically. And here to talk about when it works and when it doesn't is Robert Sutton. He's an organizational psychologist who teaches at Stanford University.

Robert Sutton, welcome to the program.

Professor ROBERT SUTTON (Organizational Psychologist, Stanford University; Author): Great to be here, Lynn.

NEARY: And I should mention that you are also the author of a book. Unfortunately, we can't mention the title of that book on the air.

Prof. SUTTON: It's the no-jerk rule, but it really isn't jerk. It's a letter that starts with an A and rhymes with castle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Let me ask you how you know when a leader is intentionally deciding to swear or use profanity and when it's a slip.

Prof. SUTTON: Well, I think that the main sign we can tell is when it's backstage versus front stage, especially when some of the backstage kind of leaks out. There was one point when President Bush sort of whispered to Cheney that there was a reporter in the audience who is a jerk.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: (Unintelligible).

Vice President DICK CHENEY: Oh, yeah.

Prof. SUTTON: But (unintelligible) I think you had of Carol Bartz and also President Obama, I think they were using it quite strategically. And I even suspect, in the case of Obama, was in a script or something they had discussed, because swear words, taboo words pack an emotional wallop that the ordinary words, the replacements simply cannot.

NEARY: Well, what might a person be trying to accomplish by using a word like that that packs a wallop?

Prof. SUTTON: Well, sometimes it's kind of a bonding effect. I mean, if you listened to the backstage tapes with both Lyndon Johnson and with President Nixon, that was just the way those guys talked to one another. So it's just part of being the group.

Another effect is that when you want to shock people and especially create emotional arousal. Carol Bartz, I think that's a lot of what she's doing strategically.

And then the last thing is authenticity. That's who Carol is and it comes across very straightforward. And, in fact, she's got a very tough turnaround job at Yahoo. And to me, that shows that she's a tough boss and she means it.

NEARY: And let's talk about the fact that Carol Bartz is a woman, and would a woman particularly decide to use that kind of language as a way to prove herself to the guys?

Prof. SUTTON: In the case of somebody like Carol Bartz, I hate to bring up the notion of personality, but I believe Carol has always been that way. She's -let's just say that if Michelle Obama started talking like that, I think we would all just be horrified and shocked. But Carol Bartz, it's sort of like a comedienne talking that way.

NEARY: I guess the quote that kind of sums it up, I think it comes from General Patton: When I want it to stick, I give it to them loud and dirty.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SUTTON: And I think that's very consistent with the notion that words are just tools in a toolbox. And sometimes when you really need that wallop, you want to get out the word. But then there's other times when you don't want to give it to them loud and dirty because you embarrass them. You get them all cranked up and you've kind of got a mess on your hand. So this stuff is very related to the context and what you're trying to accomplish. And that can be for good or it can be for evil.

NEARY: Robert Sutton is a professor in Stanford's Management Science and Engineering Department.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Prof. SUTTON: Thank you.

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