Sure, it was a shout-out, but was it worthy of shouting? The marketer was, after all, emailing about socks.
“Hi Philly!! I want you to check out the most technically advanced hiking socks on the market!!”
Perhaps you’ve received an email like this — with seemingly innocuous, basic statements now overstimulated by a handful of exclamation points, or worse, oddly placed emoticons.
Maybe you are even guilty of sending said emails. (When you did it, it was because you were actually yelling or genuinely over the moon, though, right?)
But more likely than not, most people — women in particular — do it to make sure their message reads as friendly and not too… insert-negative-quality-here: corrective, cold, aggressive.
Perhaps the irony is that the punctuation itself is too much. And if conversations taking place recently on social media are any indication, there may be a revolt brewing that could pry those exclamation points from our prose, particularly in work-related communications, in favor of more nuanced language on the internet.
Last week, FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver tweeted: “There really needs to be a semi exclamation point for when a period conveys too little enthusiasm in a work-related email but using the full exclamation point makes you seem like a psychopath.” The tweet has since gone viral, amassing more than 30,000 likes on Twitter and appearing on countless accounts on Instagram.
A day later, Ken Jennings, the Twitter star best known for killing it on Jeopardy! for six months, wrote: “We are the generation that devalued the exclamation point” and posted it alongside a screenshot of an email subject line reading: “Your Farm Box Delivery is Ready to Customize!”
We are the generation that devalued the exclamation point. pic.twitter.com/CTh83HueKO
— Ken Jennings (@KenJennings) April 20, 2018
Others chimed in, either admitting their exclamation-point addiction or noting they have to make a real effort to avoid them while at work.
The last step in my email-writing process is always to go back and take out 60% of the exclamation points that I included so that I would come across as friendly and inviting
— eli_shap_smith (@elishapsmith) April 24, 2018
meanwhile, I will be over here adding some more exclamation points and smiley faces to my emails to avoid people thinking I’m being abrasive https://t.co/gycnpQuDA8
— stacy-marie ishmael (@s_m_i) April 19, 2018
Help! I’m! Addicted! To! Using! Exclamation! Points! In! Work! Emails! Because! I’m! Afraid! Of! Sounding! Passive! Aggressive!
— BBri-8 (@realslimchicken) April 24, 2018
On the internet, punctuation marks are often used not to punctuate, but rather to indicate tones detectable in-person but absent in the written word, said Sali A. Tagliamonte, a Canadian research chair in language variation and change who has studied the evolution of online language. She said the trend toward using punctuation in this way probably began with the advent of instant messaging, which, for the first time, allowed for quick back-and-forth communication that wasn’t in-person.
Now, the generation that grew up with AOL Instant Messenger is aging into professional-level jobs, perhaps taking their IM-ing habits to work with them.
“You can see why the exclamation point is being used in communication at the office,” said Tagliamonte, a professor of linguistics at the University of Toronto. “It’s not really appropriate. It’s kind of bleeding into communication where we have this jocular way of interacting.”
Annie Heckenberger, the vice president group creative director at Digitas Health in Center City, said she uses exclamation points in work emails to convey excitement to younger creatives. She said though she’s not an “overly bubbly or vivacious person,” she uses the marks to soften feedback and let others know they’re doing a good job.
“When I started to work more in social media, that type of punctuation somewhat conveyed a voice,” she said, “and it was often perceived as a young, girlish exuberance.”
Although it wasn’t the case five years ago, Heckenberger said the male creatives she works with now use exclamation points just as often as the women in her office do. While there’s little scientific research about gender differences in punctuation use online, a decade-old study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication analyzed online postings in a chat forum and found women used exclamation points far more than men.
the first thing I would do if I were man is write an email without any exclamation points
— Methany (@methany95) April 19, 2018
Judith Kallos, an email etiquette expert known as “Miss eM@nners,” said when it comes to professional emails, one exclamation point is sufficient. She recommends first considering the tone and topic of the email — rather than the recipient — to determine when and where an exclamation point might be appropriate. For example, she said, it’s unnecessary to have a blanket rule about avoiding exclamation points when communicating with a boss, especially if you want to note something extraordinary: “We broke the last six months’ record!”
But, she said, overuse of certain types of punctuation can come across as aggressive or condescending. Even if someone sends an email with too many exclamation points, smiley faces or the like, Kallos said the recipient isn’t bound to reply with the same level of perceived enthusiasm.
“Traditional language will never be out of style,” she said, “and there is no place for emoticons, emojis, or oddly placed punctuation in business communications.”
Aimee Cicero, a 38-year-old public relations events manager at the Brownstein Group, admitted she overuses exclamation points from time-to-time in work-related emails — only with people she knows — as a way to make up for the fact that she can’t use nonverbal cues, like hand motions. The Pennsport resident said she’s tried to tone down the number of exclamation points she uses at work for fear of coming across as immature.
“But I also want to be true to myself and who I am,” she said. “I am an animated, expressive person in general. Everybody wants to have their personality come across in their communications, no matter if they’re verbal or nonverbal.”
Tagliamonte said you’re breaking language rules — like: “rarely use exclamation points” — when you misuse punctuation, not to mention, you likely come across as sounding “strident.” And overusing exclamation points or ellipses only causes those devices to lose impact over time.
“People are always pushing the rules. So you have a rule and you just push and push,” she said, “until it gets too far.”
Have you sent or received an email that included too many exclamation points? Are you consciously trying to improve your communications at work? Let us know in the comments!!!!