A Theory of the Modern Exclamation Point!
Doing the Work of Tone
If you’re a woman who works in a traditionally male-dominated industry, chances are high that you’ve heard some version of this advice: when you finish writing your email, go through and replace all the exclamation points with periods.
This well-intentioned advice is based on three regressive ideas:
Exclamation and enthusiasm are feminized — and also “unprofessional” (out of place) in your industry
Put differently, behaviors associated with women are unprofessional (and out of place) in your industry
If you want to fit into this industry, you should use punctuation like your coworkers do — which is to say, “like a man” (aka Lean In 101)
But! “Emailing like a man” can also come off as “too aggressive” — and maybe someone’s advised you to add back in an exclamation point or two (but again, not too many).
That advice is rooted in a few more regressive ideas:
Women can be present in the workplace if they sign the tacit agreement that their employment depends on behaving “professionally” — but if they behave too professionally, it should be softened….
….Because women who are too professional are bitches and/or too ambitious, or cold, or threatening, or just generally a problem
All this, over a simple piece of punctuation — and we haven’t even talked about what happens when a man uses an exclamation point (gasp!) or exclamation use in texts or Slack or Teams.
When we talk about exclamation points, people often think we’re talking about tone. But what goes unsaid is that tone is the performance of niceness or seriousness. It is the work of matching sentence structure to gender norms, industry norms, workplace norms, and generational norms. It is switching norms dozens if not hundreds of times a day, as you shift from text to email, from group chat to professional Teams Message. And we are doing this Tone Work exponentially more than at any point in history.
If you were a receptionist at a doctor’s office in the 1960s, you might have to modulate your voice differently when dealing with a patient in the office or on the phone. You might have a slightly different way of addressing the doctor and the nurse. All of that was work — and also involved performing authority, but not too much of it — and a good receptionist was good at doing it.
If you were a writer, or a socialite, or salesperson or an accountant, same thing. Tone Work is not new. But technological advances that promised to allow us to communicate more efficiently have, in practice, also allowed us to communicate more, and created an expectation that all others communicate more in return. Hence: overflowing email accounts, proliferating group texts (and group text guilt), hours if not days dedicated to catching up on Slack. Dealing with that communication is exhausting, in part because it involves so much tone work.
Here’s an incomplete list of things people told me they worry about when it comes to their exclamation point use: looking too Midwestern; looking too young; looking too arch; appearing too eager; appearing not eager enough; coming off as unserious; coming off as too motherly; not exuding enough authority; the list goes on (and on and on). The more marginalized your position (in society, in an industry) the more attention must be paid: one person told me she only occasionally uses an exclamation point when writing to friends, but would never, ever use one professionally. “I’m a Black woman,” she simply explained.
How do we learn to write — and to punctuate? By reading. By playing. By experimenting. One of my high school best friends wrote letters to me at summer camp and I remember being annoyed that she finished every sentence with an exclamation point. But why was I annoyed? If nothing else, I should’ve understood that she was excited by her own summer — and excited for me to come home. Even then, I had come to understand that excitement as too much.
Like many writers, I went through an extreme em-dash phase (if you think I use a lot of em-dashes now, you have no idea). Then I moved on to the colon, and at some point, the semi-colon. This was in my late teens and 20s. I was reading a lot of Henry James…..and then a lot of academic writing.
I started grading, which meant I had to figure out the “compliment sandwich” at the end of the essay. The first sentence would start with praise, then an em-dash, then the real news: what needed work. A short list of things to refine, ending with encouragement, almost always capped with an exclamation point. This is a fantastic first draft, and I look forward to seeing the second! An embodiment of my teaching style, really: I’m so happy you’re here, I want us to talk seriously about how to become better writers and thinkers, but I also don’t ever want you to leave a conversation or class or piece of feedback from me feeling like shit.
To think that an exclamation point could be imbued with such power: to make a person feel hopeful instead of hopeless. In other contexts: welcomed instead of excluded, safe instead of afraid. To diffuse tension, to ease power imbalances. If those things are “feminine,” we should be teaching all people to use them more, not less.
If you’re a regular reader here, you’re familiar with my exclamation point habits. I employ them playfully — part of the “musicality” as one commenter on Instagram put it, of a piece of writing. Sometimes that music is slightly more flip or ironic or forceful, but I never think of those exclamation points as unserious. I use them after a conjunction (But!); I use them to underline an idea mid-sentence (!); I use them to express real delight (Beans! What a wonder!).
Replying to readers in the comments section, I often use them to temper any sense that I am the authoritative voice of reason. In the threads — which are often a real font of enthusiasm — I use them to convey my own. I’m a profligate exclaimer in texts (See you soon!!!, ty ty!) including to my handyman (an actual text from yesterday: I’ll be here all day!) In emails, I employ a close approximation of my grading feedback style (Hello! SERIOUS BUSINESS SERIOUS BUSINESS. Exclamation!). There are very few situations in which I feel the need to be exclamation-free, and almost all of them involve a man who won’t take no for an answer.
Your exclamation style may be different. I hope it is, because you are different, and what I hope most for all of us is that we’re able to find a way of communicating that feels true: that feels like you, like your own music, regardless of gender or industry or age. And, just as importantly, that we can understand that the way we’ve come to understand “professional” communication is both arbitrary and unfixed.
“My boss told me to stop using exclamation points,” one woman told me earlier this week. “Now I’m the boss, and my usage is back.” Another told me she’s started mindfully using more exclamation points as part of her deprogramming from the “not like other girls” mindset. We can shift and expand norms. We’re doing it now.
If you think someone’s written communication style is off, or wrong, or bitchy: see if it’s possible to clarify their intention without asking them to change their tone. And if you think someone uses too many exclamation points: maybe the person with an exclamation problem isn’t them, but you! ●