Early in my career I was often worried about seeming immature or young. Obviously that stemmed from a confidence issue, but it was also because I look pretty young (I was carded at an R rated movie when I was 29). So I was often on the receiving end of comments like “you’re so young!” or “how old are you?” It also doesn’t help that I’m an oldest child who was a little bit sheltered so I’m missing a lot of cultural references from childhood (as discussed in this blog post and this one) so even my co-workers who I knew respected me would wind up saying things like “oh my gosh, you’ve never seen that movie/tv show/trend, you really are young!” (Side note: I have always wished that I could just say “Wow, you’re SO OLD!” back.)
So in an effort to make sure I didn’t seem too young, I started to analyze how I was communicating and one year I made a New Years resolution to use less exclamation points in my emails. I was worried that the abundance of exclamation points was making me seem too excited, or ditzy or, well, young.
Like every other resolution I’ve ever made, I did not succeed.
But I wasn’t really that worried about it. I mean, it’s not a bad thing to be enthusiastic, right? Who doesn’t like getting an email that says “This is a great idea! Thank you so much!”?
Since then, I haven’t really given my exclamation point use much thought. And then in the last couple of months, it has come up twice. First, it was in a text conversation with my sister. She was canceling plans and admittedly, she had been canceling on me a lot recently. But I wasn’t mad. (As I’ve mentioned before, I kind of love being canceled on. It’s like getting the gift of time!) And she had a totally legitimate reason. A friend was in from out of town and that was the only night she could see her. Also, she’s my little sister. I love her unconditionally even when we’re fighting. But in this case, I really wasn’t mad. So when I said “No, it’s fine. Go see your friend.” She read those periods as anger. She tried to un-cancel. And when I insisted that she go see her friend (because she can see me anytime…if she would just stop canceling, haha) she said “But I know you’re mad. You used periods in your text.”
I’ve often joked about how I wish we could color-code texts and email for tone. And in this case, I was neglecting to use the one code we have for tone. The difference between saying “It’s fine.” and “It’s fine!” (I guess the use of the word “fine” could also be discussed here…but that’s not what this post is about!) After this interaction, I started to give more thought to my exclamation use in texts. I’ve also resorted to adding this emoji when I’m teasing someone. Just in case it’s not 100% clear I’m joking:
And then the issue popped up again. My boss was working from home and I was emailing to ask her for help with various projects. And then because she and I have a really fantastic and honest working relationship, I ended up admitting some negative feelings about a situation that I thought I had done a pretty good job of hiding initially. And she sent back an email that said “I could tell what you were thinking from your original email.” I looked back at that email and I realized that the problem was probably the missing exclamation point. (And also probably that I’ve worked for her for ten years and have NO poker face…even in email?) It was the difference between “Would love your thoughts on this.” and “Would love your thoughts on this!” The period meant my thoughts were negative.
And yeah, looking at it now, I totally see it! Those are two very different sentences in today’s world where most of our communication seems to happen in writing. Exclamation points are no longer something we use sparingly to show true enthusiasm. They are much closer to the norm. And not using them shows negativity while using them could just mean you’re fine!
The more I think about exclamation points and how they’re used, the more I get nervous about my text conversations. I’ve started just not punctuating the end of a sentence because it’s not necessarily exclamation point worthy…but it’s also not negative so I’m afraid of the message a period will send. I am over-thinking my text messages to the point where I should probably just call the person so they can hear my tone. Supposedly, phones have the ability to do that. Make and receive calls? But I’m (just barely) a Millennial so damned if I know how to use that function!!!!! <—this shows you I’m joking.