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Power Players and Profanity: Talking About Talking Dirty

General Patton was once quoted as saying, “When I want it to stick, I give it to them loud and dirty.” That’s consistent with the idea that words are just tools in an executive toolbox.

General George Patton

I have been blogging about the strategic use of swearing (see here and here), which was originally inspired by Dan McGinn’s great post at HBR on “Should Leaders Ever Swear?” This was followed by a podcast at HBR where I talked about the same subject. NPR got wind of all this and I was interviewed for a story that aired on NPR, on All Things Considered. It is called “Power Players and Profanity“, and it a four minute segment that covers characters from Carol Bartz and Michelle Obama, to Presidents Obama and Bush, to General George Patton. Here is a little excerpt from the transcript:

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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 an executive 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.”

This comment was inspired by psychologist Timothy Jay’s work on the evolutionary value of swearing. As noted in an earlier post, he wrote:

Taboo words persist because they
can intensify emotional communication to a degree that nontaboo words
cannot. Fuck you! immediately conveys a level of contempt unparalleled by nontaboo words; there is no way to convey Fuck You! with polite speech.”

Finally, a comment about the experience with NPR; I was interviewed on Friday by Lynn Neary, on tape, and had felt as if I had not answered a couple of the questions very well. NPR’s great editing made me sound much more coherent than I was, and I appreciate it.

P.S. The link to the story has both a written summary and the audio.

Reprinted from Work Matters

Robert I. Sutton, PhD is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford. His most recent book is The New York Times bestseller The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. His next book, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best…and Survive the Worst, will be published September 2010. Follow him at twitter.com/work_matters.

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About the author

Robert Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford and a Professor of Organizational Behavior, by courtesy, at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Sutton studies innovation, leaders and bosses, evidence-based management, the links between knowledge and organizational action, and workplace civility

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