At the start of my career, I didn’t dare use exclamation marks in emails. I worked at a business magazine and wanted to convince my colleagues I could pull off a blazer (I couldn’t) and knew about the economy (I didn’t).
Emails from my boss and senior editors were brusque – “sure,” “fine,” “needs work”– and stoked my constant fear that they hated me or thought I was stupid. I quickly correlated being smart with being unemotive. The last thing I needed was to punctuate like a woman who drinks pumpkin spice lattes.
It came as a surprise when a female boss at my next job used exclamation marks like a grammatical salt shaker: “Running late!”; “Happy to see you!”; “Can you fix this typo? Thanks!” But instead of questioning her intellect, I felt relief. The earnest punctuation took the edge off every message. I never wasted hours wondering if she was disappointed in me or just in a rush. She never seemed unapproachable like my previous managers had.
I started using exclamation marks myself and I’m not alone.
Though the dash-and-dots are stereotypically associated with teenage girls texting one another about their crushes ― “omg Bobby’s hair today!!” ― it has now become completely normal for professional women (and of course some men) to use them in work emails. Critics say the enthusiastic punctuation undermines the authority of a message; real leaders should end statements with sombre periods not high fives. But exclamation marks have made workplaces better for women. Professionals who use the punctuation mark challenge the sexist notion that “female” qualities such as emotional sensitivity and compassion are antithetical to good leadership.
Multiple studies have shown that women use exclamation marks more than men. We are generally an emotive gender and also express ourselves on the Internet using “xo,” emoticons, ALL CAPS and repeating letters (Hiiiii) more than dudes. But professional women don’t use enthusiastic punctuation because talk of meetings and deadlines make them school-girl level giddy. They use exclamation marks to convey friendliness when they divvy out tasks or deliver criticism.
You could argue that choice only further fuels the stereotype that women should be nice, but what’s wrong with sparing your colleague the anxiety of thinking you’re frustrated with them if you’re not? Workplaces could use more employees who care about each other’s well-being in addition to their own success.
The stigma around exclamation marks exists primarily because emotional sensitivity isn’t a quality we associate with good leadership. Research shows we think “masculine” characteristics, like being assertive, dominant or competitive, equal authority. Strengths we associate with women – such as compassion, communication and collaboration – are often seen as weakness in the workplace. Don Draper-types are still the gold standard, despite evidence that shows employees are better motivated by bosses who care about their emotional well-being than those who rely on intimidation. Especially in a time when people work longer hours than ever with less worker protection, we need leaders who don’t see empathy as a fault.
Luckily, the outdated stereotype of what makes an effective boss is changing, in part thanks to leaders who aren’t afraid of an expressive communication style. According to an Atlantic article, Diane Sawyer, Arianna Huffington and Nora Ephron often sign professional emails with “xo.” No one can accuse these women of lacking authority. It’s now the exception when I correspond with female editors who don’t use exclamation marks.
If I’m contacting an industry heavyweight or renowned expert for the first time, I might stick with periods just to feel them out. What if they find me overly earnest? But nine times out of 10 they respond, “Hey Angelina!” – the digital equivalent of tentatively reaching out for a handshake and getting wrapped in a warm hug.
Friendly emails are a sign of progress, not weakness, in our working lives. The many women who already use exclamation marks in business emails know you can both act like a feeling human on Gmail and have professional success. The sooner more men and women embrace an emotive writing style, the sooner we can dispel the myth that good leaders must be steely, distant and motivate employees through fear.
*This column previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen