Hi, readers! Let’s talk about email! What’s with all the exclamation points?! I’m serious. Have you noticed how this one punctuation mark dominates your email messages — both those you get and those you send?
Our early grammar and writing lessons taught us to use the exclamation point on the rare occasion. It’s reserved for interjections and really strong feelings, according to Merriam-Webster. But ever since I left journalism and entered the corporate world, I’ve noticed the proliferation of exclamation points in emails. I resisted at first. Journalists are not ones to toss around unnecessary punctuation. Yet, too often I’ve succumbed to the pressure — and yes, it is pressure — to say “Hi!” or “Thanks!” or “So great to meet you, too!” And then there is the question mark-exclamation point one-two combo. Right?!
To be taken seriously at work, you have to pay attention to how you communicate via email. Too many exclamations and you look silly. But you don’t want to fire off curt missives either.
“If you are a leader in your workplace, you want to be intentional about the culture you are creating and the way you compose an email is part of that culture,” says Guillermo Villar, an executive communication coach in Charlotte, N.C.
I believe that there are three reasons for all these exclamation marks, and none is good for your business, career or conveying your message.
I try to read over my emails before sending them, weeding out exclamation points and making sure message is clear. Here’s why: I’m a writer and a professional communicator, and exclamation points are lazy. It takes longer to to think of something original or specific to say. Sometimes an exclamation point is so much easier. It’s just not good writing or communicating.
Often, “whatever we think, we jot down and we don’t think about how it will get consumed on the other end,” said Villar. He recommends always putting yourself in the shoes of the recipient.
Rather than saying “thanks!” to someone for completing a deliverable on time, it would be more meaningful to say something specific about the job that was done. After all, there is nothing extraordinary about meeting a deadline. Something like: “Thanks. I like that you included that extra bit of research and included a recommendation for next steps.”
Sometimes we try to make email recipients feel better or assuage our own guilt for asking too much or not being effusive enough in a previous email — all with the stroke of an exclamation point. We don’t know how to have difficult or even straightforward dialog electronically.
Who hasn’t gotten an email like this from a higher up?
“I know it’s late notice, but I need that report today, not tomorrow, OK?! I’ll be online tonight, so just get it to me asap!”
No. If you are asking or telling someone to go above and beyond for you, be upfront about that. You need to acknowledge that what you’re request a big deal and ask if it is feasible and how you can help. Question marks and periods are your go-to punctuation marks here.
If you are on the receiving end of such an email, maybe don’t respond with “Sorry! I can’t!” or “Sure! I can do that!” Stop. Think. Then email something well thought out and reasoned like: “Sorry, I can’t work after hours this evening as I have plans. I am happy to hand off the project to someone else on the team and help them get started. I can also respond to texts later this evening, if needed.” Or, “Happy to help. But let’s talk about the other project that is due today and whether that deadline can push or how we can best handle both.”
3. Peer pressure
Just because you get an email laden with exclamation marks or your boss always uses them, it doesn’t mean you to, too. It’s a slippery slope. Once you start relying on exclamation marks you can’t really stop without fear that people will take you for terse. Who has time for that? The key is to be mindful and intentional.
Pay attention to the words in your email and getting all of those right. Then, you can make the period your brand.