THE BLOG
07/23/2013 12:44 pm ET

To Say F*ck or Not to Say F*ck... That Is the Question

Last month I was in a meeting with one of my clients, a senior executive, who let her f*ck flag fly high. In the course of an hour, she dropped the F-bomb so many times that when I left the meeting, I was feeling... well, mixed. On the one hand, I found it completely invigorating. On the other hand, I found myself feeling conflicted. Because the truth is, as much as I love to drop the F bomb in my private life, when it comes to work, I prude up.

You see, I admit to being a bit of a f*ck-user in my personal life, but when it comes to my business life, I'm a friggin' virgin. So, I had to ask myself, "Is it just me?"

Recently, while running a leadership seminar with a group of 40 senior managers, I focused part of the session on the power of language. I emphasized the critical nature of word usage as a way to inspire and motivate. We discussed the importance of choosing your words carefully to convey the right message, whether it involves giving constructive feedback or giving the right professional impression. I gave the group a list of "power words" that are extremely effective in a business setting, and then casually mentioned what I assumed was obvious, "Oh, by the way, do not curse." One of the managers raised his hand and said, "But in our business, we all say 'f*ck.' It's just the way we talk." At which point, both male and female managers chimed in to defend him.

Shortly after that seminar, I led an executive retreat on presentation skills. At the start of the retreat, the Senior V.P. of the company stood up in front of his team of 150 and congratulated them on their "f*cking awesome sales!" Then he introduced me. I echoed his congratulations, choosing to use only one of his adjectives.

Former Yahoo! CEO Carol Bartz used the f-word when she was fired from the company. Meryl Streep used it at an annual Women in the World Summit. Hillary Clinton has been rumored to say it quite frequently when the cameras aren't rolling.

So maybe it is just me? Maybe I'm alone in my prudish views? Or maybe it's a function of my age and background. When I entered the corporate world in the early 1980s, there were rules about swearing. We just didn't do it. At least in front of our employees or bosses. Partly because it wasn't deemed professional, and partly because we knew we would get cited for it on our performance appraisals. I guess that's how I got into the habit of not cursing in the workplace.

Maybe that's why I compensate and say it so much in my personal life? I mean, let's face it. There really is no better curse word. In fact, my f-bomb dropping client acknowledged this. Over the course of our meeting, she half-heartedly apologized for saying it so much, then followed up with, "There really is no replacement word for "f*ck."

She's right. There is no replacement word. And science confirms it.

Researchers have found that swearing is such a common response to pain that there is probably a good reason why we are wired to do it. In fact, psychologist Richard Stephens of Keele University in England recommends that if people hurt themselves, they should swear. In a study he conducted in which students had to immerse their hands in ice water for as long as they could stand it, he found that those who swore were better able to tolerate the pain than those who didn't. Swearing actually triggers the body's fight-or-flight response.
(Fun fact: Stephens was actually inspired to do his research after listening to his wife curse like a sailor when she gave birth to their child.)

Do the researchers distinguish between saying "damn" versus "f*ck"? Yes! It seems that the most vulgar curse words offer the most relief. "If a hollered damn acts like Advil, fuck is, well, Vicodin," writes Monica Corcoran Harel in her wonderful article "What The &%$@?"

Being a self-professed Type A risk-taker, (although I've been working on becoming an A-), I decided to challenge myself to saying f*ck in a business meeting recently. Prompted by my client who had just let one slip silkily off of her tongue, I let one slip off of mine. Except mine didn't exactly slip. It kind of stuck there, like the way that you see tongues get stuck on icy poles in the movies. It just didn't feel right. But as soon as I walked out of the meeting and onto the sidewalk in midtown Manhattan to hail a taxi, I found myself saying "What the fuck!" as the cab passed me by. It slid silkily off of my tongue, and hey, I did notice that the pain of the passing taxi seemed to subside after my shouting. Then again, I did accompany it with a hand gesture, which might lead me to my next blog post...