It was in my first office job that my habit of writing exclamation mark–ridden work emails first came to my attention. My supervisor noticed the pattern and gently asked me to tone it down.
At first I wasn’t sure how to take it; it felt like being asked to tone down my personality. Like a lot of people, I worried about coming off as too stern or serious, and resorted to exclamatory punctuation in order to lower that risk. It simply hadn’t occurred to me that it was making me sound overly enthusiastic or even unprofessional.
Are exclamation marks always out of bounds in professional communications, though? As a recovering exclamation-mark addict, I decided to dig deeper into the roles–good, bad, and somewhere in between–that this common piece of punctuation plays in our working lives. Here’s what I learned.
Emotion Versus Emotional Intelligence
According to communication expert and Fast Company contributor Judith Humphrey, exclamation marks in the workplace can introduce vague emotional subtexts between coworkers. “I would suggest using the exclamation mark sparingly in work emails,” Humphrey told me (via an email exchange that was notably free of exclamation marks). “That’s because it is an expression of emotion, but that emotion is not always clear.”
For example, she explained, “If a manager writes to a team member, ‘I’m looking forward to receiving the project update!’ how is that exclamation mark to be interpreted? Is the manager expressing excitement about receiving the update, or anxiety that it may not be delivered on time?”
As Humphrey sees it, well-written work emails need to reduce opportunities for misinterpretation, but that doesn’t mean they need to be totally robotic. “If we want to be emotionally intelligent (rather than being emotional),” she continues, “we should use [words and] language (including punctuation marks) that are clear in their meaning.”
In other words, rather than relying on punctuation to convey her intentions, this Twitter user might need to write a more effective greeting (here are Humphrey’s tips on doing just that):
As a Canadian, for some reason, I feel like I'm being rude when I don't use them. Like "Hope you're doing great!" seems so much nicer than "Hope you're doing great." In other words… #RepeatOffender
— Caroline Carter (@CarolineJCee) April 10, 2018
Then again, it’s hard to read, “Hope you’re doing great.” (with a period at the end instead of an exclamation point) and think, “Geez, she sure sounds rude and not very nice.” Which brings us to another issue . . .
The Gender Factor
When my colleague Rich Bellis first raised this question on Twitter a few weeks ago, Fast Company staff writer Ainsley Harris weighed in to say she feels there’s a gender bias at play here, which may particularly cause women to drop exclamation points into professional communications:
are you guys going to address the gender side of this? i feel like there's an expectation for women to be friendlier over email, as they are expected to be in life. sorry–friendlier!
— Ainsley Harris (@ainsleyoc) April 10, 2018
Wired writer Jessi Hempel agreed; “I think it’s gendered,” she shared on the same Twitter thread.
Of course, there’s no authoritative data to know whether or not women use more exclamation marks in work emails than men do, let alone the reasons why they might. But it’s no secret that women face “tone policing” in professional contexts, in which their choice of words and overall communication style (not just verbally but in writing, too) are more likely to be unfairly scrutinized than those of their male colleagues.
Harris and Hempel suggest that exclamation-mark usage might be a symptom of this issue. If they’re right, then why risk playing into a sexist stereotype? As Humphrey points out, there are better ways for everyone–regardless of gender–to convey sincerity and warmth than resorting to vague punctuation.
Context, Context, Context
Of course, women deserve to be taken seriously no matter how they communicate, yet there’s a whole cottage industry devoted to coaching women to adopt more “authoritative” (i.e., stereotypically masculine) styles. This obviously leads to a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t dilemma, which may be one reason why leadership coach Matylda Czarnecka is less of a hardliner on the question of exclamation points in work emails.
She believes context is everything. Not only does work culture dictate what’s appropriate, but “rapport also plays a part,” Czarnecka explains. “Someone who mostly uses periods with a formal-mannered boss may use exclamation points in playful excess with other colleagues.”
Other Twitter users who chimed in echoed this point:
Depends on context. Cold outreach, never.
— Eric M. Ruiz (@EricMartinRuiz) April 9, 2018
While sharing a success story or congratulating someone on a job well done! Just once though.
— Neha Bharti (@nehabharti19) April 9, 2018
These seem like sensible guide rules. Personally, while I’ve learned to use exclamation marks at work more cautiously, if I’m communicating with someone I haven’t met in person, I’ll typically closing my email with a quick, one-off “Thanks!” and leave it at that.
The consensus, anyhow, is that it’s probably best to use exclamation marks sparingly, if only because the potential “cons” tend to outweigh the “pros” more often than not. But adapting to the context is a top priority. The close colleagues with whom you share a Slack channel might not care if you shower them with exclamatory punctuation, but your boss might–even if she never takes you aside to say so.