By Kerry Roberts

Last week this topic made headlines and generated conversation after the very public firing of Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz who was known for what they are calling “salty” language.  Some are applauding her ability to bluntly tell it like it is – check out the Wall Street Journal’s article “Carol Bartz’s Best Quotes”, others are more critical of her style suggesting it showed lack of judgment (and I won’t even touch the ones who suggested she lost her sense of femininity!).

If you are somewhat prone to the odd “Bleep” in a moment of passion or frustration at the office, you can relax.  Here’s a few factoids I found while doing some digging that suggest that it can be ok (in moderation) to throw out a few F-bombs now and again:

Swearing for Influence:  In a study conducted at Northern Illinois University in 2006, students were assigned to listen to 1 of 3 speeches on the subject of rising tuition.  The only notable difference:  In Speech A the speaker cursed up front.  In Speech B they cursed in the middle and in Speech C, not at all.  The Result: Speech A and B orators scored much higher in Persuasion and Passion, and the “cursers” scored the same on credibility.

Swearing to Blow off Steam:  In 2009 at Keele University in the UK scientists studied the impact of cursing on pain tolerance.  Volunteers held their hands in ice-water, and were either allowed to cuss or not.  The Result:  Those who let the ‘salty’ words fly, were consistently able to hold their hands in the water for longer.  Apparently swearing can help us better tolerate physical pain or frustration.

But . . . before you burst into your boss’ office screaming expletives, here are a few notes of caution on when, where and how to use swearing carefully & strategically:

  • Beware what you type:  In 2007 Goldman Sachs was raked over the coals by the US Senate after an email was made public containing 4 letter words about the integrity of some of their mortgage dealings.  That year, an email went out to 34,000 traders banning curses from company emails.
  • Be careful who is listening:  You never know if a Senior Manager, Client or Customer is around the corner – regardless of whether they are open to swearing, it makes an impression that may not necessarily be positive or worth the risk.
  • Be mindful who it is aimed at:  Swearing for humor can even build morale. Swearing about something, while perhaps riskier is more commonplace, swearing at or about someone, is abusive and can get you and your company into serious, even legal hot water.
  • Be wary if you are low on the totem pole:  “Swearing is a way of communicating that you are the most important person in the room” says Cory Scherer, a researcher on the 2006 study mentioned above.   You might think twice if this isn’t even close to true.

I think the bottom line on swearing is to be intuitive, know if your culture supports it, if your audience tolerates it, and try your very best not to make a complete ass (oops!) of yourself when you do it.