Slack has significantly reduced the number of useless emails sent in my office (thank God), but every once in awhile, I’ll find myself ripping off a cursory, one-line email to one of my colleagues. And whenever I do, I find my left hand creeping toward the “1” key so I can punctuate that sentence with an insincere exclamation point.
“Thanks!” I’ll write.
And I’ll get an emphatic, “You bet!” or “No problem!” in response.
That’s when a part of me dies inside, embarrassed about sounding so childish.
I fully understand why we engage in this online behavior. In person, we have body language, intonation and facial expressions to communicate whether our words are intended as serious, sarcastic, playful or heartfelt. The majority of communication is nonverbal, as they say.
But email — and all digital communication, for that matter — lacks any of those contextual clues, so it’s easy for short, innocuous messages to come off as flippant and dismissive. (I have one friend who frequently responds to texts with “Ok.”, for instance, and it drives me crazy.) Exclamation points soften those messages, and assure the recipient that the tone of the message is, indeed, positive.
And yet, there’s something about putting a disingenuous exclamation point at the end of the sentence that just feels… wrong. Infantile, even. Here I am, an adult professional male, and I’m punctuating my emails like I’m a tween boy sliding into his crush’s DMs. This is a place of business, goddamnnit! Have we no self-respect?! (See, now that’s good exclamation usage right there.)
I can’t be alone in thinking these disingenuous !s are cloying and unprofessional, right?
“I don’t think they’re disingenuous” says Michael Adams, English professor at Indiana University and an expert in slang and internet jargon. People use exclamation points to “take the edge off” what they’re writing, Adams says, similar to how we use “lol” or emojis. Lol doesn’t literally mean “laughing out loud” in most cases, Adams says; oftentimes, it’s used to connote cheerfulness. The cry-laugh emoji is used much the same way. And WRITING IN ALL CAPS has replaced exclamation points as the preferred way to indicate shouting.
This is all part of the natural evolution of language, Adam explains. And that’s well and good for when you’re texting your friends, but exclamation points in professional communications are a different matter. There’s a casualness and familiarity to them that strikes certain professionals (i.e., me) as off-putting — kind of like those presumptuous maniacs who want to hug instead of shaking hands.
Much of this blame can be laid on millennials (classic), who have injected a shocking amount of informality into the workplace. “I have students who begin emails to me with ‘Hey!’ Or even ‘Hey, prof!’ in some cases,” Adams says. “But I don’t mind. I’m sure that if I take a job 10 years from now, my style of writing will seem absurdly old-fashioned to them.”
The trend follows a larger shift toward informality in our culture, Adams continues. Wearing jeans to a high-end restaurant or church would’ve been unthinkable decades ago; now it’s the norm. Exclamation points are merely on the same trajectory.
Still, Adams advises to use them more sparingly in business emails, especially when emailing someone for the first time.
“If I don’t have a professional relationship with you, I’ll probably be very sparse in how many exclamation points I use,” says Jacqueline Whitmore, founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach, a business etiquette consultancy. “Less is more when it comes to exclamation points.”
And to my earlier point, email etiquette expert Peggy Duncan says there is indeed an element of groupthink at play with exclamation points in work emails. “People see other people doing it, and they just copycat.”
Said a different way: One person sends an email with exclamation points, so now I have to do the same, lest I become the office asshole. Not fair!
Duncan is admittedly old school when it comes to exclamation points; she says they should never be used in company emails. “[Exclamation points] are very distracting, and they take away from your writing and meaning. … If you wouldn’t do it on company letterhead, don’t do it in an email. And I’ve never seen an exclamation point in a company letter.”
Whitmore says exclamation points do some have some utility in office communications, however. “Thank you!” comes across as more sincere and emphatic compared to a relatively subdued “Thank you.”, for instance.
In the end, no matter what you feel — whether you’re a no exclamation purist, or exclamation-happy millennial!!!! — the trend toward informality is likely to only continue as remote work and digital communication become more pervasive.
“With people speaking to each other through devices so much now, there’s a new hesitancy about communication,” Adams says. “Digital communication seems like it would be more direct, but in fact, it makes us more unsure and hesitant than older forms of communication.”
Because when you’ve never met your colleague face-to-face, it’s impossible to tell whether they’re a snarky bastard or an earnest nice guy. And as long as that’s the case, they’ll continue hedging their statements with exclamation points.
So the next time you get nervous about sounding like a dick in email, but don’t want to send an overly-aggressive exclamation point either, simply walk over to your colleague and explain yourself face-to-face. They’ll probably think you’re a psychopath for doing so, and maybe crack a lame joke out of nervousness. That’s when you can let out a fake “Haha!” in person.