I don’t have one of those sunny dispositions that inspire musicals. I’m a generally happy person, but if you were to ask my friends and family to describe me, the word cheerful wouldn’t be in the mix. And yet, if you were to read my email correspondence, I’m a bright ray of fking sunshine.
Exclamation points are intended to convey strong feelings, shouting, or show emphasis. According to the Chicago Manual of Style, they “should be used sparingly to be effective.” In my writing work, I live and die by that rule. And yet, phrases like “Thanks so much!,” “So nice to meet you!!,” and “Looking forward to working with you!!!” are peppered throughout my outbox.
If I were to write those phrases as I’d actually say them, all of the exclamation points would become periods. But when I make the swap in writing, I feel like I sound aggressive and cold.
According to a 2006 study, women use exclamation points in their emails significantly more than men in an effort to appear friendlier. According to a 2012 study, women also use more emoticons and, according to a 2009 study, more lexical tools like capitalization and extra letters.
In a piece for the New Statesman last year, writer Amelia Tait explains that men have more room to appear unenthusiastic than women do. Basically, when you’re receiving written correspondence from a woman, a certain level of enthusiasm is expected.
Personally, when corresponding with a man, I rely on the exclamation point to act as a set of kid gloves that allow me to get my point across without seeming aggressive. But when corresponding with other women, I use exclamation points to convey actual enthusiasm or to be polite. Tait writes, “If you texted your friend ‘Fancy dinner?’ and they replied ‘Sure.,’ you might be offended.” I find that to be completely true. So I’ll definitely throw in an exclamation point or three in those situations.
But it’s a fine line between enthusiastic and unprofessional. Like one of the women Tait talks to in her piece, I worry that using too many exclamation points makes me sound like “a breathless valley girl instead of a capable, confident woman.”
When it comes to the exclamation point, there’s really no way to win. Use them too much and you’re deemed unprofessional. Use them too little and you’re seen as cold. Use them because you feel you have to and you’re not ~living your truth~. Use them because you want to and you’re supporting patriarchal norms.
In an ideal world, women wouldn’t have to bend themselves into shapes to make other people feel comfortable, but unfortunately we’re not there yet. So for now, do what feels right.
Thanks so much for reading!!!