Swearing At The Major-League Levels Of Power

Presidents and other powerful persons 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?

For centuries, people had little idea what went on in their leaders' private conversations. But since the invention of recording equipment, we've gotten a few more insights into the way the powerful talk to each other. President Richard Nixon's Watergate tapes for example, revealed a side of him that had previously been unknown -- like his habit of swearing.

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

"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 f*** off."

And last month, President Obama used some strong language discussing the BP oil spill:

"We talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers -- so I know whose ass to kick."

As it turns out, our leaders sometimes swear strategically, but what works and what doesn't when it comes to profanity in high places?

Robert Sutton is an organizational psychologist at Stanford University and the author of The No Ass**** Rule. He tells NPR's Lynn Neary that using swear words strategically can pack an "emotional wallop" that ordinary words don't have.

"I even suspect, in the case of Obama, [it] was in a script, or something they had discussed," Sutton says.

Gen. Patton was once quoted as saying, "When I want it to stick, I give it to them loud and dirty." Sutton says that's consistent with the idea that words are just tools in a toolbox.

"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 got a mess on your hands."

Besides getting people's attention, strategic swearing lends authenticity. In the case of Bartz, swearing is a part of who she is, Sutton says.

"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."

But it's not appropriate for every personality, Sutton adds. "If Michelle Obama started talking like that, I think we would all just be horrified and shocked."

Some swearing is just a matter of habit, too. "If you listen to the backstage tapes with both Lyndon Johnson and with President Nixon," Sutton says, "that was just the way those guys talked to one another, just part of being the group."

But of course, being collegial can go too far, as during the 2000 presidential campaign when then-candidate Bush was too close to a microphone when he pointed out a reporter to running mate Dick Cheney.

"There's Adam Clymer, major-league ass**** from the New York Times," Bush said.

Those are the moments when there's no strategy – it's just a slip. Swearing has to be handled carefully, Sutton warns.

"This stuff is very related to the context and what you're trying to accomplish," he says. "That can be for good -- or it can be for evil."

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