Last week, a lecturer at the University of Loughborough was found by an employment tribunal to have been unfairly sacked – for using ‘multiple punctuation marks’ in a text. A few extra question marks being grounds for dismissal was ruled to be (obviously) a bit ridiculous, but the judge nonetheless conceded that Dr Sobnack’s messages were ‘brusque, blunt and unnecessarily aggressive in tone’. So what’s the problem with a bit of punctuation???!!
The case got me thinking about the way talk to our colleagues. Never has our online conduct been more important than during this last year, in which emails have largely replaced face-to-face contact. I constantly pepper my emails with wildly unnecessary punctuation marks, ironically in an attempt to seem less brusque and blunt. I’ve always felt two question marks, instead of one, conveys genuine interest in an answer. I’m ashamed to say I even use the odd smiley face. But my favourite drug of choice is the exclamation mark, which crops up in nearly every email. After all, nothing says passive aggressive like a simple ‘thanks’ without one. But now, I’m revaluating my whole outbox. What if my missives read less as cheerful and easy-going, more as insanely over-enthusiastic at best, rude and demanding at worst?
Exclamation marks have more than their fair share of potentially problematic undertones. In 2016, Jeb Bush used one in his logo during his presidential campaign. It drew widespread mockery from the media, with the BBC describing the logo somewhat patronisingly as ‘ooz[ing] a casual informality… he doesn’t want to appear TOO serious’. Meanwhile, Donald Trump, a die-hard exclamation mark enthusiast, posted 2,251 tweets using them in 2016 alone. As writer and punctuation expert Philip Cowell says, ‘exclamation is all about you… the exclamation mark is the selfie of grammar’. Or, as F. Scott Fitzgerald puts it (more bluntly): ‘An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.’ No more fitting a signifier for the ex-President, then.
In short: to overpunctuate, especially with exclamation marks, is apparently to weaken your professional clout. One or two exclamation marks can clearly slip all too easily into farce, then into just! Shouting! Into! The! Void! ‘If I receive an email full of extraneous punctuation, the first thing I do is let out a big sigh,’ says my boyfriend. ‘There’s a time and a place for overuse of exclamation marks and punctuation in messages – and it’s from parents on the family WhatsApp group.’ Perhaps I won’t email him for a while.
It would seem the dreaded exclamation mark is almost as divisive as signing off with a quick ‘x’. Interestingly, both have been coded as feminine habits: in a 2006 study, researchers analysed 200 exclamations used in professional discussion groups and found that women used 73 per cent of them. The conclusion was that women are more concerned than men with appearing friendly at work.
A quick search of my inbox confirms the pattern. My female clients and colleagues nearly always put kisses at the end of emails and I return the favour, even if we’ve only met a handful of times. Most of my male colleagues use a more authoritative lexicon: no kisses, no overly gushy vocabulary and yes, no exclamation marks. When I examine these emails, I have to admit that the ones without read as less apologetic – concise communication feels more assertive. If you want to show you can get the job done, don’t worry too much about looking friendly.
Of course, being approachable or enthusiastic does not equate to bad office conduct. But just as we have all learnt to NEVER WRITE AN EMAIL IN CAPS, LEST WE BE MISTAKEN FOR SHOUTING, perhaps there is something to be said for considering our punctuation, too. Excessive use of anything is off-putting (also a good rule for cologne, incidentally). It would seem the old adage rings true: everything in moderation.
But if you do feel the itch to send an overly punctuated, shouty missive full of kisses and emojis – no one can be expected to go cold turkey – do drop me a line. While we could all theoretically agree to scan our emails for anything contentious before we hit send, I can think of nothing worse than the resulting, utterly vanilla conversations. When it comes to exclamation marks, I’ll be aware of them – but stop sending them? Never!!!