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In Praise of Cussing

Christopher Lochhead is a a former technology executive who now works as a strategy advisor.

There are many great pleasures in life: Good friends, a beautiful sunrise, a job well done - and the right cuss word.

Ah, swearing. We love to do it. Understanding why it's so popular is less self-evident. But after four decades of first-hand trial and error, I think I'm on solid ground by saying that for most Americans, swearing is an eminently satisfying, if not authentic, mode of self-expression. With one strong cuss you can probably express every human emotion from love to hate precisely because swearing offers such a powerful release.

Is swearing a practice associated with under-educated, boorish, heathens? Of course it is. But that tells only part of the story. There is also something rebellious in the act which appeals to lowbrow and highbrow alike, like we're getting away with something naughty. It also feels really great.

You'll find many of the most successful people in the world using salty descriptions to get their points across. According to U.S. News & World Report, United States Presidents have "a rich tradition of cussing." President Obama is no stranger to the practice while his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel has famously raised the practice to an art.

The media's not immune. Keith Olbermann now has a WTF segment during his MSNBC television show while Joe Scarborough and Shepard Smith have famously dropped on-air F-Bombs. (Comedian Jon Stewart goes even further and swears almost nightly on "The Daily Show.")

The trick is to apply the fitting word to the right situation. Imagine being stuck in traffic forever or waiting endlessly in a long line. What about trying for the seventh time to get your insurance company on the phone, or realizing all your data has disappeared after your hard drive crashes-all these are tailor-made situations begging for an off-color bon mot.

The flip side is that in times of joy, cussing positively lifts hearts. Skiing down a wicked run or celebrating the birth of your baby, cheering on your team as it wins the big game or sharing a great glass of scotch all qualify as occasion to trot out the proper Anglo-Saxon adjective.

Is it a mistake that so many successful people curse? I don't think so. There is something attractive about people who communicate in clear, powerful, expressive ways. We admire leaders who don't pull any punches. In fact, cussing has been part of business life ever since the first caveman short-paid his neighbor for a piece of meat. Sometimes cussing is used to display faux toughness. Over the course of my business career, almost every great executive I have worked with swore.

Some execs strut their raw side in public. Not long after taking over as Yahoo's CEO, Carol Bartz famously dropped an F-bomb on a Wall Street conference call. (Full disclosure: During a speech in front of over a thousand salespeople, I once said: "We are not participating in the f*cking recession!" and the crowd roared its approval.) These are not one-off examples. A 2007 study found that swearing at work can inspire teamwork.

The critics of cussing who say that it's rude, inappropriate and ugly are quite right. And that's what makes it so good. Of course, there's a time and a place for swearing. Those among the cuss-noscenti, who over-use swearing, diminish its value. I would not recommend swearing in front of the queen, the Pope, or young children. Swearing too loudly in a library or church also is ill-advised. And there are times in business when swearing can backfire by making you appear weak as if you were trying to compensate for some deficiency.

Like most things in life, common sense rules of the road apply. You won't help your case by cussing in front of a judge, a jury, or your mom (although my mum is OK with it), Same goes for when you're facing a stickup man with a gun. There's no one-size-fits-all approach but I've found that swearing works best as an expression versus an attack weapon.

Obviously, context matters. At a recent dinner with a couple of software executives, I told them they were (expletives deleted) and they thought I was hysterical.

Truth be told, it's people who don't cuss who really scare me. With all that repressed emotion bottled up inside, how long before they burst into flames? So the next time you hear someone described with a four letter adjective, don't immediately assume the speaker is some hopeless knuckle dragger. (Which may be true, of course.) But at least they're celebrating their right to fuller self expression.

By Christopher Lochhead
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