I recently texted my husband: “How does fish for dinner sound?” His response: “Sure.” I was puzzled. He loves seafood. I make a mean BBQ salmon. Why did he sound so lukewarm? As I responded, “Don’t you mean, ‘Sure!’?” I realized: He’s not indifferent — he just doesn’t feel compelled to stud every message with multiple exclamation points, like my girlfriends and I do. Take, for example, this recent email from a friend*: Yes!!! We must meet up when we are there! There’s a great restaurant that you have to try. Seriously — they have sangria on tap!! Miss you!! Happy 2016!! Have an awesome New Year's Eve! That's 11 exclamation points (EPs) in seven sentences. A work email from a female Ivy League-level psychotherapist featured five EPs and a smiley emoticon in six sentences. And after scanning my Sent box, I found myself just as guilty: In almost every message, I used an EP in my salutation as well as when signing off. Punctuation has been making headlines as of late, from that viral Washington Post story about people who put periods after texts to the publication of Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by veteran New Yorker editor and proofreader Mary Norris.
Written conversation doesn’t always lend itself well to conveying emotion or tone, which forces people to fall back on EPs, emoticons, and the like. Norris likes the creativity and expression in our newfound EP usage — particularly when people attempt to employ "extravagant" exclamation points, such as using an EP for every syllable (OH MY GOD!!!), or adding extra space between exclamation points, as if to create an exclamatory ellipsis (REVOLUTIONARY ! ! !). "It strikes me as a tiny bit daring," she says. But when women use EPs, that's not always the conclusion. Like our predilection for saying sorry unnecessarily, EPs are a way to soften the words we say. Many women can be so fearful of coming across as cold or bitchy that we feel compelled to put a cherry on top of most of our sentences. In other words: End a sentence with a period and you risk being accused of being on your period. (The Onion took this on with the article “Stone-Hearted Ice Witch Forgoes Exclamation Point.”) This gave me the idea to go cold-turkey with EPs for a week. No more kicking off emails with, “Hi!”. No more ending simple, not-that-exciting messages with “Thanks!!”. No more comments on social media ending with "!!!". It was tougher than I'd thought. At first, I couldn’t stop picturing this one colleague of mine who almost never uses EPs; while I’ve never met her in person, I imagine her as Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada (that Onion article sure is spot-on). I felt compelled to add a little disclaimer at the bottom of certain work emails admitting, “P.S. I'm conducting an experiment where I try not to use exclamation points.” It also helped to pretend I was one of my male friends or family members, many of whom use EPs sparingly. What does that say about being a female in 2016? I had to check myself in nearly every email I sent. I was shocked to realize how heavily I rely on EPs to sweeten my emails — both personal and professional. Even now, lying in bed, on painkillers, post-foot surgery (decidedly not in an EP mood), an editor emailed me something along the lines of, "Feel better soon!" and I responded, "Thanks!" because replying, "Thanks" just reads as unappreciative. I slipped up many times, especially in texts, which I tend to fire off much quicker than emails. It's almost as if those motions of hitting the "123" button with my left thumb and the "!" with my right have become ingrained in my muscle memory. But eventually, I realized that not every text warrants an outburst of punctuation. When I'm planning a playdate with my friend and she writes, "My place or yours?" there's no need to write back, "Ours!". I realized I was using the EP to convey that I'm looking forward to seeing her; if we were in person or on the phone, I could do that with a smile or with warmth in my voice. With e-communication, all you have is grammar and punctuation. The more I practiced EP avoidance, the easier and more organic it became. I found myself coming up with more creative ways of expressing my excitement. For example: Keri: “We’re on for dinner this Wednesday."
Me: “Yes!!” Became: Keri: “We’re on for dinner this Wednesday.”
Me: “Yes!!” Became: Keri: “We’re on for dinner this Wednesday.”
It’s not going to win me any Pulitzers, but at least I'm not being lazy and don't sound like a preteen. In the end, the world didn't grind to a halt, friends didn’t think I hated them (in fact, they didn't seem to notice at all), and I'm now learning to let go of my grammatical training wheels and e-communicate like a grown-up. With a few smart tweaks, you can help yourself be taken more seriously, which can be a good thing in certain fields. (In my field, my goals when communicating with editors are to come off as smart, voice-y, quick, and reliable. The voice-y part is key — I've built my reputation to the point where editors specifically come to me with articles that demand voice and humor, so a ho-hum email reply punctuated with nothing but periods could work against me.) While nobody pointed out my punctuation change, I still felt paranoid that recipients of my non-EP emails and texts would think I wasn't being nice or friendly. I do think punctuation matters in social communications, and I think many of us tend to overdo it on the EPs. But I learned that we don't need to completely omit them. It can be like candy: You're not supposed to eat it all day long, but a square of dark chocolate once a day is actually really good for you. And in some situations, you should definitely use an EP. Norris says certain words and phrases should always be followed by an exclamation point, such as "Congratulations!" or "It's a boy!" — anything less and you risk coming off as bitter or disappointed, respectively. (When my mom texted, “Happy New Year!” I did not flatly respond, “Happy New Year.”) I’ve now settled into a sort of middle ground about my EPs. I strive to be strategic: Superfluous ones are out (“Invoice attached!! Thanks!!” is totally overkill) but one won’t hurt, especially if I want to be remembered as friendly and pleasant to work with.
Bottom line: There’s no need to ditch exclamation points completely, but do be judicious. “If overused,” Norris warns, “the exclamation point, like profanity, would lose its power.” *Verbiage has been slightly altered to protect privacy and ensure my friends don’t stop emailing me.