People have hated exclamation marks for a long time. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously scoffed, "An exclamation point is like laughing at your own jokes." Terry Pratchett warned, "Multiple exclamation marks are a sure sign of a diseased mind." The controversial dot and dash even tore apart a relationship for Elaine in a 1993 episode of Seinfeld.
But post internet they’ve become especially loaded; viewed as an affront to grammar, communication, professionalism, and sincerity. Thoughts on them — alongside emojis, apologies, and xoxoxs—in emails, texts, and on messenger apps have filled countless books, articles, and podcasts across the past decade. Business bibles warn against them while writers sweat over their shifting etiquette.
When I sit down at my computer that little mark above the 1 key throbs above my pinky finger. The desire to strike it, and the fear of what it says about me, sometimes feels suffocating.
At the end of last year, I promised to break up with exclamation marks. I Tweeted about it, wrote a reminder on a Post-It, and proudly announced my new lifestyle to friends and co-workers. It was part of a handful of changes I was making to my digital communication: exclamation marks, emojis, and insincere apologies were out. The new me was direct, clear, and less enthusiastic.
But I wasn’t alone in my resolution and when I mentioned it to a coworker she shared her own struggle with the contentious punctuation mark: “I feel like I used them a lot when I started [work]—I never wanted to seem pushy and thought that I came across friendlier by using them so people would treat me more favorably. However after a while I felt that they were doing the opposite and I just looked young and unprofessional.” She’d since resolved to limit herself to one per email.
The anxiety over seeming young felt universal. A friend who works in senior management admitted that as she progressed through her career she’d been told that her use of exclamation marks made her look immature or ditzy. A male colleague had even asked her to tell another employee to stop using them because “clients wouldn't take us seriously with them in her emails.”
With all this in mind, I pitched this article to my editor. Hitting him up on Slack, I explained, exclamation free, that I wanted to write about how loaded the mark had become. He didn’t get it. To my surprise he replied, “I admit this is a world I know nothing about.” Across years of chatty emails, where I observed he used exclamation points liberally as a sign of his general support and enthusiasm for everyone around him, they’d never served as a passing point of tension.
This is because in the 21st century exclamation marks have become a female issue. In 2012, a study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication found that 73 percent of exclamations across the chat logs they reviewed were used by women. They were almost never a sign of anger or aggression, but rather as “markers of excitability in these professional forums.”
Seven years later, they live nestled among other examples of “lady language”—the aforementioned apologies and emojis reside here too—all of which linguist call hedges. These are words and phrases like “perhaps” and “I think.” Speaking to Quartz last year, gender linguist Susan Herring explained hedges are speech habits women absorb from birth to make their opinions more digestible: “Already as toddlers, the idea that girls should take others’ feelings and desires into consideration before speaking or acting has formed.”
She flagged these habits as “the emotional labor of digital communication.” They exist in opposition to declarative boosters statements —like “obviously” and “always”—that men tend to favor.
It’s reasoning like this that lead me to write that Post-It. I, like so many women, was worried that my enthusiastic emails made me seem passive and unsure of myself, and that a line with a dot would somehow signal my tender and deeply buried need for approval. After all, as a friend in advertising shared: “stopping exclamation marks helped get rid of the giddy, so-happy-to-be-here enthusiasm and I think helped me be taken more seriously.” Personally. I lasted two weeks.
Without them, I thought I would seem in control and direct. All those articles had told me this cull was less a grammatical choice and more a radical act of self care. One that showed I wasn’t interested in stroking the egos of my email recipients, or absorbing their emotional baggage. But in reality, it just felt rude. Exchanges that were usually warm and easy began to felt stilted. I was aware that my curt tone was making others, mostly women, uncomfortable. Friends replied to my texts asking if I was mad, and work acquaintances were less co-operative. I didn’t feel like I was speaking as myself, but as a slightly annoyed doppelgänger.
At first I tried to not let it bother me, reminding myself I was conditioned to feel guilty about not falling over myself to validate others. But it didn’t help. As I saw emails come in from other women, I attempted to view their exclamation marks as thorns I was wisely pruning. But as I clipped at my sentences I looked muted. This wasn’t a positive change, but another part of my personality I’d accepted wasn’t right. I was squeezing myself into a linguistic girdle, and pushing against the part of myself that was, well, nice.
Social psychologist Jenny Davis has been widely quoted for reflecting that traditionally, aka pre-email, women’s language tended to be "about making space for others’ expressions.” For millennia, we’ve been raised to make others feel comfortable. Whether listen without interrupting, instinctively sharing personal stories as a mark of empathy, or replying to texts with emojis, we’re using forms of language to show we care.
While I agree that hollow apologies and feigned enthusiasm don’t serve anyone, I began to realise that despite all the blowback, when I used exclamation marks I usually did mean it. I might not have been jumping out of my seat in ecstasy over news someone had put on a pot of coffee in the office kitchen, but I did mean to express an interest and investment in what others were saying.
Despite the push back, my senior management friend later mentioned that she’d resisted the pressure to abandon exclamation marks. In an email she explained that now she sees them as a useful communication tool: “I use them to help mitigate how the recipient might be feeling, due to either the subject matter of an uncomfortable email, or where there might be some unspoken tension in the background. If anything, it's me trying to make that person feel more relaxed, excited, or at ease.”
In person, I tend to widen my eyes when others speak and nod enthusiastically. I’ve never been called out for these signs of social engagement. Only after I threw them away, did I realise how exclamation marks did a similar job in the icy tundra of online communication. After thinking it over my advertising friend added, “I think this is bullshit, exclamation marks help you seem friendly and approachable which I think is really valuable in the workplace.”
Since weaning ourselves off phone calls, we’ve been marred by a new culture of misunderstandings. Tone and emotion are hard to communicate on screens, so text language has evolved to fill new gaps. As far back as 2012 Jessica Bennett and Rachel Simmons were observing in The Atlantic how women were bending and stretching their texts to bridge the spaces left when conversations decayed. They noted “we [women] use xo, along with other effusive indicators—exclamation points, ALL CAPS, repeating letters (Hiiii)—to signal emotional availability.”
Language is a living organism that evolves constantly. Thinking of it like that made me feel increasingly proud of my exclamation marks, emojis, and yes sometimes even apologies. They’re not reflections of insecurities, but rather signals of emotional intelligence and sensitivity. Scanning my emails, I didn’t find myself wanting other women to chill out, but rather men to pick up their game. Why should I edit myself to sound more distant? Wouldn’t it be more constructive to encourage others to built patterns of warmth into their emails and texts?
The digital world can be a cold place, to survive we need to we need to become more dexterous with how we express ourselves online. And if for me that means an exclamation mark, then there’s no way I’m going to extinguish that little flash of warmth(!)
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This article originally appeared on VICE AU.