Etiquette Guy

Why Your Emails Could Use an Exclamation Point (or Three)

Why Your Emails Could Use an Exclamation Point (or Three)
Image credit: Paul Sahre
This story appears in the June 2016 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

For years, I resisted the exclamation point. In emails, I typed “Hi”; not “Hi!” “8:30”; not “8:30!” And “Disregard previous email. I found a large binder clip”; not “Disregard previous email!! I found a large binder clip!!!!!!” As Kanye West and Donald Trump indiscriminately employed the exclamation point in tweets, as Panic! At the Disco enjoyed modest success in the mid-’00s, as even my least enthusiastic coworkers expressed enthusiasm over email, I remained stoic in the face of the exclamation point’s rise. 

And then one morning, not all that long ago, I gave in.

I typed “Thanks!”

And reader, I am here to tell you that it felt fantastic.

Nay, fantastic!

The resistance, the stubborn reluctance to emote, the grumpiness -- it all fell away. In one two-step stroke, my message was transformed from grumpy, curt, maybe even a little rude, to happy, eager, maybe even a little (but just a little)…giddy.  

And yet!

I felt a bit dirty. Not dirty! Dirty. 

What I felt when I typed “Thanks!” was a taste of an extremely addictive drug. The exclamation point is the caffeine of punctuation. But that addiction has raised the baseline emotional requirement of professional communication. First we just needed one. Then two. Then three. Then eight, nine, 17!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Why? Recent studies at Binghamton University found that participants rated punctuation-free text messages as less sincere than those peppered with punctuation. And that punctuation and other markers -- emoticons, slang and the like -- serve as stand-ins for facial expression and vocal intonation. That’s why an email without an exclamation point now seems sad, annoyed or terse. 

You know, exclamation points couldn’t even be found on typewriter keyboards until the 1970s. People had to type a period, then backspace and type an apostrophe above the period. Now it’s a shorthand for all our emotion—and it’s making us lazy communicators. It’s time to craft a vision for the exclamation point. A policy. A manifesto! Or just, you know, some rules:

  • Only one at a time. (Stop the madness!!!)
  • Only one per message. 
  • Type an exclamation point only if you are smiling or otherwise physically emoting. 
  • An exclamation point should never take the place of words that could more specifically convey emotion. Which means: “Thanks!” is no longer allowed. Nor is “OK!” or “Hello!” However, “Whoa!” is fine. (Related: It’s whoa, not woah. Woah isn’t a word. It’s never been a word. Why is everyone spelling it woah?!)
  • “Amazing.” is more effective than “!” “Unbelievable.” is more effective than “!!” “Remarkable.” is more effective than “!!!” Any descriptor is better than “!!!!” 
  • “!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” is irritating. Don’t be irritating.
  • In emails to your boss: Nah. 
  • In emails to your brand-new boss, whose general bearing you haven’t figure out yet and who doesn’t know you’re an enthusiastic team player: Yes. 
  • In PowerPoints: No.  

Exclamation points show commitment. They show that you’re not afraid of the vulnerability of enthusiasm. But too often the exclamation point is used to take the place of words people need to hear. So we should use words -- strong, forceful words, worthy of how we’re feeling as we type them. 

After all, which sounds more sincere: “Thanks!” or “Thank you so much for this. You have gone above and beyond, and I won’t forget it”? The exclamation point indicates enthusiasm, but only words can specifically prove it. 


(You knew that was coming!) 

Edition: October 2016

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