The exclamation point provides creative writers, birthday-card scribes, and even many white-collar professionals with an easy way to communicate enthusiasm, a convivial tone, and – in some contexts – urgency. They’re easy to sprinkle throughout an email to implicitly soften the tone. But some career experts question their usage, especially by women in the workforce.
The New Statesman recently ran a story about the function of exclamation points in emails, specifically the way that they’re used by women. Writer Amelia Tait positions the exclamation point as a symptom of the emotional burdens borne by women, especially in a professional context. She distills her argument in the following statement:
“It seems that we expect exclamation marks (i.e. friendliness) from women, and women add exclamation marks to live up to this expectation and emulate other women.”
Glamour’s Jillian Kramer later recapped the New Statesman story and included a comment from feminist writer Jessica Valenti, who states:
“I think it's because women feel the need to come across as constantly friendly and accessible. And they're right to feel that way Unfortunately, there have been numerous studies about the way women are viewed in the workplace, and being 'unlikeable' is a real issue. I think it's a way for us to come across as nonthreatening or to relay friendliness in a format where tone can be unclear."
As professional women ourselves, it's easy to relate to the pressure to be agreeable. And we have to wonder: Do exclamation points really not belong in the office, or is there something more insidious at play here? Labeling women's coping mechanism for social pressures as "unprofessional" or childish is wrong. And frankly, it's sexist.
If you’re a professional woman who vastly prefers periods to exclamation points, your chosen form of punctuation will communicate your message just fine. But if you’re a professional woman who wants to use exclamations but feels self-conscious, take control of communication and use whichever marks feel the best to you.
A tech-industry friend of Kramer’s described the stress she once felt over her own natural email habits within her male-dominated field. To fit into industry norms, she spent months editing her own emails and removing exclamations, “fluff” phrases, and any outright-conversational verbiage.
"This never sat well with me," she said. "So after six months of trying to fit the mold, I decided it was no longer worth masking my personality in correspondences. While I still keep things short, I don't shy away from using GIFs and cheeky jokes to get my point across. I'm a great employee who happens to be a woman. I don't need to sacrifice one of those identities for the other. It's my tiny way of making it easy for the women who come after me. Fingers crossed, years from now, those young chicks won't have to think twice about starting their emails with a big, fat, bold exclamation mark."
Amen to that. Power to the exclamation point.