Hi! Hope you’re well! Great to hear from you!
I’m well-known for my cheerfulness. Even on my worst days, I put on a happy face to communicate with people outside my immediate friends and colleagues. In my emails, this behaviour manifests itself as exclamation marks.
Preoccupied with appearing nice, I used to catch myself using exclamations at the end of every other sentence. And I’m not ashamed to admit it because, chances are, you’ve sent those emails too.
Take a look at the last few messages you sent. If you’re like me, you’ll see exclamations and other niceties peppered throughout: “Looking forward to seeing the end result!” and “I’m excited to hear from you!” and “I’m happy to help out!”
But are you?
Former US presidential candidate Jeb Bush's use of an excitable exclamation mark in his logo during his 2016 campagin drew some mocking from the media (Credit: Getty Images)
Whether you send off a few – or a few dozen – emails a day, you’re making these micro-decisions about how to accommodate your recipient when you address, punctuate, and clarify your ideas in real time. And this is where decades of conditioning creep in, and that anxiety-driven need to be liked emerges.
Especially for women, who use exclamation marks more often than men do. In a 2006 study, researchers analysed 200 exclamations used in professional discussion groups, and found that females used 73% of the exclamation marks. The study concluded that women use these marks more often than men do in order to convey friendliness in their professional interactions.
For me, the scourge of the exclamation mark is this: I use it excessively because of the pressure I feel to manage the recipient’s feelings. My default tone is enthusiastic, even when the situation doesn’t call for it.
Exclamation marks can sometimes be jarring or convey strong emotion. The European Parliament used them to protest changes to Hungary's constitution in 2013 (Credit: Getty Images)
Women tend to overemphasise our kindness at work, and not without good reason. According to McKinsey’s 2018 Women in the Workplace report, we are still less likely to be hired in or promoted to senior positions, and there’s pressure to provide more evidence of our competence than our male colleagues. And, unsurprising to many women, we’re more likely to have our judgement questioned in our area of expertise.
Is this why I overcompensate with enthusiasm?
I fear that I won’t get what I want or need, so I soften my tone and emphasise my interest. I add a layer of friendliness because I don’t want to be perceived as cold. Each unnecessary exclamation mark is a little request to my recipient to please like me, and please say yes.
This goes beyond my emails, too. In mixed company, I’m not always the loudest voice in the room and I used to be hesitant to interject. I used to fear speaking up and standing up for my ideas and expertise in an effort to let others take the credit they demanded. That meant my contributions went unshared in the name of politeness.
Women have been conditioned to be kind, supportive, and to not take up space – and it’s draining.
Exclamation marks are often found in warning signs. Using them in your writing to convey enthusiasm too often could warn others to not take you seriously (Credit: Getty Images)
When I started paring back my punctuation, I noticed how that same inauthentic enthusiasm was showing up in my day-to-day. I discovered that the time I spend adjusting my tone takes a toll on my energy.
Managing other people’s feelings is exhausting. And what’s worse, it’s unnecessary.
The reality is, I’m not always excited to hear from someone I don’t know. And I’m not always happy to help, because I have my own work to do. Expelling this energy in order to be accommodating of others drains me of energy I could use for my own creative projects and professional pursuits.
I’ve realised all of this grammatical enthusiasm begins to indicate an open-door policy. Sure, people will think I’m nice, but what am I sacrificing in the process?
It’s not just the punctuations – it’s the way I speak in meetings. It’s the way I agree to things when I’d rather object. It’s the way I set (and do not set) boundaries for my own time. When I accommodate others in a way that puts my own needs and projects second, I am failing myself and my team.
Not the default
As I’ve learned to rein in my punctuation, I’ve discovered that I can masterfully use exclamation marks as a relational tool rather than a coping mechanism. Like a well-placed smile, a thoughtful exclamation connects me to the people I communicate with, whether it’s my closest friend or a cold email to a stranger.
Instead of overusing niceties, I let my words lead. I use exclamations sparingly, and only when it feels honest and authentic – not when it’s coming from a place of insecurity. If I need to make the right impression, there are plenty of ways to build an emotional connection beyond punctuation. Instead, I opt for substance over superfluous style, like complimenting someone’s recent work, or sending an article they’ll enjoy.
Now, I ruthlessly replace unnecessary exclamation marks with full stops. Full stops slow down my pace. They offer a firmness that says I know what I’m talking about, and that I know exactly what I want.
This also challenges me to manage my inbox more thoughtfully: I protect my time by reflecting on whether I do need to send a response, and why. If I don’t feel the email will add substance, or further a relationship, I don’t write it.
I’ve found my verbal communications have become firmer as well. When I’m not feeling confident, I sometimes use upspeak, or ending statements with the inflection of a question. I frame my needs as questions rather than directives, and it’s time to start putting full stops here, too. We don’t have to ask nicely for our opinions to be considered; our thoughts and contributions are valid and worth taking up space.
I’m removing the mask of punctuation that drains my energy, and drawing a hard line to protect my time and energy. And sometimes, I’ll exclaim.
Because an exclamation mark, like kindness, is a valuable resource. And I will use it properly. Full stop.
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