One of the greatest stories in Hollywood lore was the controversy over Clark Gable’s uttering of “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” in the 1939 film classic Gone with the Wind. While the D-bomb had been dropped in several films over the previous decade, censors had at first objected to the use of that four-letter word.
Some studies have suggested swearing can actually be good for you. Let’s assume the last remaining star alive in Gone with the Wind, Olivia de Havilland, has been playing that clip on tape and DVD repeatedly over the years, and now streams it. The tactic must be working: She’s still thriving at age 101.
Other research has suggested that profanity, including, of course, the S-bombs and F-bombs, may also be indicative of honesty and transparency. That could be a net positive for the business community.
According to the data research firm Sentieo, and recently discussed in broader detail on Quartz, 2017 has been one of the most profanity-laden years this century when it comes to companies’ conference calls. Reporter Jason Karaian demonstrated that after the gutter-mouthed years marking the global financial crises of a decade ago, those naughty words were on the decline earlier this decade. But in recent years expletives during conference calls (usually annual or quarterly earnings calls) have crept up incrementally – and then they spiked last year.
“Either we are witnessing CEOs reveal their true feelings or, perhaps, the rise of corporate cursing simply reflects the coarseness of public life these days,” wrote Karaian in analyzing all these potty-mouthed incidents.
But the evidence suggests more business leaders, even if they may be giddy over the recent tax cuts signed into law by President Trump, are exasperated by the administration’s antics – and realize their stakeholders, the vast majority of which are not part of the one percent, want to know that America’s leading companies have their back – or at a minimum, are honest about how they are conducting business.
For example, during an earnings call last summer, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon had this to say about U.S. policymakers:
“It’s almost an embarrassment to be an American citizen traveling around the world and listening to the stupid s— we have to deal with in this country.”
And that is not even the most bombastic example, though most transcription services scrubbed out or eliminated that excerpt. Most news sources, including the Guardian and Quartz, wasted no time in gleefully reporting Dimon’s rant.
To many of us, our gut reaction to hearing such coarse language on public conference calls smacks of unprofessionalism, not leadership. But the reality is that for CEOs including Dimon, the refusal to mince words can have a positive effect on how others perceive their integrity. One study completed a year ago concluded that profanity was linked to decreased lying and deception; in fact, the more bad words, the more the offender was seen as being honest. Another January 2017 study also found that patterns of profanity also were linked to positive views about a person’s honesty, similar to how research over the years linked honesty to consistent use of pronouns such as “I” and “we.”
In the end, that level of comfort with the occasional vulgar slip of the tongue also infers confidence. At a time when the U.S. government is not inspiring much confidence, there is an opportunity for businesses to step in and be the adults in the room.
How we at first react to hearing foul language coming from a leader, and then the affinity we may develop for that person over time, is not all that different from how fans have long reacted to the infamous Susie Green, Larry David’s nemesis on the HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm. “Oh, listen you four-eyed f—!” of course, is one of the show’s greatest taglines.
But as the actress playing her, Susie Essman, told an audience several years ago, those tirades have earned the character and actress affection over time. “People always respond to her language, but I really think that it’s her comfort with her anger that’s the key to why people like her so much,” Essman said at a forum several years ago.
Crass honesty, blurted out without a filter in the moment, may just be the ticket to building trust after all.
Image credit: Crosathorian/Flickr