Earlier this year, Lara Frank*, a copywriter for a large tech company, wrote an email to her boss trying to clarify a miscommunication. Frank edited her email to remove superfluous exclamation marks — something she had struggled with overusing in the past — and pressed send. Soon after, Frank’s boss approached her and said the email she had sent was “sarcastic and sassy” and suggested she work on her communication skills. “I was pretty pissed,” Frank said. “We have a lot of people on our team that are very blunt — much more than this — and they had never, to my knowledge, gotten a talking to.”
Exaggerated use of exclamation marks has often been coded as a feminine habit, something used for a myriad of reasons, whether to soften an email or appear enthusiastic, engaged, or approachable. But it can also be seen as unprofessional and can, therefore, perpetuate women's struggles in the workplace. Conversely, though, women are also quicker to be reprimanded for perceived sternness. Because of this, the situation presents a false dichotomy: Either use too many exclamation marks and risk being labeled ‘too nice’ (or, worse, incompetent and inexperienced), or don’t use enough of them and be thought of as rude, sarcastic, or a bitch.
This issue widely and primarily affects women, though non-cisgender men across the gender spectrum are also affected by a gamut of gendered expectations and discrimination in the workplace. However, women in particular have been intensely socialized to please—something Frank said has become abundantly clear in her efforts to curb her excessive niceness in the workplace. "It’s a battle between being too friendly or not friendly enough," Frank told Refinery29. "It takes twice as long to do anything because you’re constantly checking over everything."
Frank feels there is a gendered double standard when it comes to workplace communication — and she’s not the only one. Lauren Chassebi, a digital PR professional and freelance writer, agrees with Frank that gender dictates communication expectations in professional settings. “Women do have to work a little bit harder to be taken seriously in the workplace than men do,” Chassebi said. “Any little things that we do can make people view us as unprofessional.”
After sending a ‘stern’ email, I’ve spent time afterwards anxiously waiting for the reply, worried that I’d be told what I said was disrespectful or aggressive.
writer and photographer Maria Montega
“It's really easy for people to perceive a message wrong when it's written down and can be read in any way [or] voice,” said Chassebi. “It's quite anxiety inducing to send an email and not know how the person on the other end is going to receive it. I think that's why I like using ‘!!’ so much — it makes what you're seeing seem a little more lighthearted, so it's less likely to offend anyone in my head.”
Indeed, that inner voice can spur a whirlwind of anxiety and second-guessing. “After sending a ‘stern’ email, I’ve spent time afterwards anxiously waiting for the reply, worried that I’d be told what I said was disrespectful or aggressive and that I was compromising the rapport by not being kind or warm enough,” said writer and photographer Maria Montega*.
For Montega, like many, this anxiety has sometimes led to a frenzied determination to find the perfect tone. “When I’m drafting an email, striking the right balance is difficult because with sounding too excited or passive comes the risk of not being taken seriously or appearing incompetent. If I’m too direct, I risk sounding indifferent or aggressive,” Montega said. “I often edit an email several times until my tone falls somewhere between.”
Given this double-bind of workplace communication etiquette, what’s a woman to do? Lisa Benger, a psychotherapist who works with young professional women, recognizes that a lot of these patterns are external manifestations of internal struggles that many women have, particularly the battle to find the voice they want to put out in the world. Thus, in order to find ways to cope with this complicated situation, women must begin by looking within.
“Everyone thinks there’s all these little strategies we can do, but in my work the strategy comes when you feel the confidence,” Benger told Refinery29. “I have worked with a lot of women on finding what’s comfortable for them. A lot of women start to realize that they have a much stronger voice than they let on.”
Women should be mindful of who their audience is, Benger says, but not so mindful that they sacrifice what they are trying to get across. Further, she finds that navigating the workplace — or any other situation — requires stepping into your own power. That way, “when you’re writing the email that inner voice [is] to be able to say: No, I have a right to say this.” But, Benger admits, finding that voice takes a lot of time.
In addition to the inner work women must continue to do, Frank hopes that workplaces will do more to meet them halfway, particularly managers and those in positions of power. “They have to keep asking themselves at every communication opportunity: How would I be reacting to this if it was a man talking to me like this?” Frank said. “Because I think if you took away our names from the top of any email, there would be huge difference in perception.”
It’s clear that this isn’t all just about punctuation. After all, periods and exclamation marks are just the tip of the very large iceberg that is gender inequality.
According to interpersonal communication and body language expert Dr. Lillian Glass, women should also consider alternative, more old-school communication tactics in order to avoid misinterpretation. She believes that, whenever possible, important professional conversations should be had face-to-face. “Even after you write something you might want to put in a phone call to clarify something or touch base,” Dr. Glass suggested. “You can misinterpret too much of the written word, and people are judging and miscommunicating every minute of the day.”
Regardless of how this issue manifests, it’s clear that it is something that has profound psychological effects on many women in the workplace. And yet, it’s isn’t just about punctuation. After all, periods and exclamation marks are just the tip of the very large iceberg that is gender inequality.
Ultimately, Benger finds the issue all boils down to women’s commitment to being unapologetically straightforward — without sugarcoating, softening, or curbing that directness. She recommends that women work consciously in order to stand more comfortably in their power. Despite the fact that doing so can be seen as bitchy or rude, Benger hopes women will remember that they are fully entitled to do so. “It’s just being direct,” Benger said. “It can be very neutral — it doesn’t mean bad or mean or wrong, it’s just direct.”
*Name has been changed