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AT THE OFFICE: Tirades show cursing is everywhere these days

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Expletive excess in public venues and workplaces is an ever-rising tide. From White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to actor Christopher Bale -- who infamously spewed a three...

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Expletive excess in public venues and workplaces is an ever-rising tide.

From White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to actor Christopher Bale -- who infamously spewed a three-and-a-half-minute F-bomb rant on the set of the latest "Terminator" film -- the air brims with the cussing of the famous and the rest of us.

Emanuel's propensity for profanity even caused President Barack Obama to joke at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner on Mother's Day weekend that Rahm is "not used to saying the word 'day' after 'mother.'"

Indeed, four-letter words pepper music and scripts -- can Jon Stewart go a night without being bleeped? -- and some people find it hard to express a thought without Anglo-Saxon earthiness that once would have made a tavern wench blush.

A study published two years ago in the Leadership and Organization Development Journal suggested that swearing can be a healthy stress release, something needed in high-pressure workplaces.

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Even though 40 percent of business owners in a SurePayroll.com survey this spring admitted swearing on the job, 80 percent said bad words are out of place at work and give the wrong impression about professionalism.

Only 1 in 10 of the survey respondents thought cursing was a justified pressure valve or morale booster.

Now it's so common, there's even a science of swearing.

One expert, Harvard University professor and author Steven Pinker, has written about five distinct types: abusive (used to be hurtful); idiomatic (to be macho or cool); emphatic (to stress a point); cathartic (to release pain or emotion, as when you spill hot coffee in your lap); and dysphemistic (to substitute a distasteful term for a milder one).

While about three-fourths of Americans admit to swearing some time, just about everyone says they've heard it in public.

Studies indicate that once the cursing habit is acquired, it tends to grow. One reported field study found that swearers say 80 to 90 cuss words a day, out of an average of 15,000 to 16,000 words spoken.

The profanity profusion doesn't mean society has waved a white flag.

Reinforcing the intent to protect some form of public decency standards, the U.S. Supreme Court last month upheld the federal crackdown on televised profanity which levies fines on broadcasters that air words deemed to be obscene or profane.

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"Even isolated utterances can be made in ... vulgar and shocking manner, and can constitute harmful first blows to children," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the opinion.

Jim O'Connor, spurred by the ubiquity of foul speech, founded the Cuss Control Academy, based in Lake Forest, Ill.

He'll do "interventions" and give workshops on job sites, often at the invitation of human resource officers who don't know how to control their bosses' language.

"A foul mouth at the top sets the tone and make it harder to control," said O'Connor, who wrote a book, "Cuss Control: The Complete Book on How to Curb Your Cursing."

O'Connor acknowledged that the days are long gone when cursing marked someone as low-class or unintelligent. But, he said in an interview, swearing still marks people as insufficiently in command of their emotions or their vocabulary.

"Instead of using those foul words, we need to ask ourselves why we're swearing," he said. "We need to understand the negativity, the laziness, or whatever is the root cause and address that."

But when profanity is so profuse in pop culture, and has infiltrated instant message shorthand -- witness WTF -- some bosses say it's hard to put limits on such "free speech" on the job or anywhere else, for that matter.

Recognizing that slipups happen among most of us, SurePayroll president Michael Alter, who publicized the problem with the survey, also offered solutions to limit swearing (in lieu of soap):

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-- Take repeat offenders aside, privately, and remind them of no-profanity expectations in the office.

-- Make it clear that profanity offends many co-workers and customers and that everyone should make every attempt to quash it on the job.

-- Make up some "code" cuss words for co-workers. He said one company decided on "brother trucker" and "what the French toast."

-- Start an office "swearing fund" and build up an office party kitty that people must contribute to when they let the expletives fly.

This last one can backfire, as anyone who's seen the hilarious Budweiser "swear jar" ad knows.

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ARCHIVE ILLUSTRATION on MCT Direct (from MCT Illustration Bank, 202-383-6064): CUSSING

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