Arguing in favor of the exclamation point—which is what I plan to do—might seem like a silly endeavor. Why, people seem to care as much about punctuation in their casual written communication as they do about using turn signals on a dark, wet, winding road.
Which is to say they don’t care as much as they should. Not only are both instrumental in a world in which one person’s actions directly impact others, but they’re also effortless as acts of basic human decency go.
As someone with a background in writing, and as someone who would always rather write than speak if I don’t want to accidentally offend or confuse, I’ve dedicated a lot of time to clarity in writing. Even at home, when I want to broach a subject with my husband that has a high risk of making me nervous, writing saves us both a lot of stress and frustration. A lot.
And in my fiction, every word the characters say has to be right, and each period, question mark, and ellipsis is used carefully. Intentionally.
In recent years, I’ve seen many comments on Facebook that read only:
Each is carelessly dropped as a reply to an elated announcement of a job offer, a promotion, a graduate degree, a new house, or some other milestone or celebration.
JOHN IS BACK FROM AFGHANISTAN!! HE JUST SURPRISED ME AT WORK OMGOMG!!!
Every time I see it—congratulations—I have a physical reaction to that floating, not-even-capitalized word. It’s a tight twisting under my ribs, something like the adrenaline-fueled and reflexive urge to strike back when hit. It’s made me genuinely angry that someone would respond with such non-commitment to another person’s obviously deeply-felt glee.
But it wasn’t until someone wrote
in response to a friend’s announcement that he was going home from the hospital after having survived something potentially fatal that I did the least (really) I could possibly do.
I complained on Facebook:
Can we PLEASE use one extra tiny finger tap for a ! after taking the time to tap out all the letters for “congratulations”? Is it really so hard to hit ONE MORE KEY to express enthusiasm so the recipient doesn’t get the impression that your congratulations are accompanied by an eye roll, a middle finger, or near-apathy? Or, like, if you can’t manage that, could you maybe say nothing at all? It would be more polite.
I expected my fist-banging to be met with waves of support. A great Vive la ! movement, I was sure, would sweep the world of written communication.
Instead, it generated a 54-comment debate that bled into a lunch I had the next day with two friends. One of them had seen the conversation on Facebook and had hoped I’d bring it up.
She didn’t want to use an exclamation point for “congratulations,” she said. In fact, she argued, in many cases, she used “congratulations” in the same obligatory way we might say “please” or “thank you.” Only if she liked the person in real life would she add an exclamation point. If she really cared about them, they’d merit a heart.
“But if you’re not at all excited for someone, why say it at all?” I was so vexed that I was interrogating her with black beans and rice still in my mouth.
“Because it’s just what you do,” she said. “It’s a thing you say. It’s polite.”
“But it’s not!”
That she proved my Facebook post true—people do, in fact, comment “congratulations” with underlying apathy—and that others commenting on my feed thought an exclamation point was implied in the word “congratulations” and would therefore be redundant was pretty irrefutable evidence that its absence could, and did, mean anything.
Or even nothing. One commenter on my Facebook post thought exclamation points had simply been phased out due in part to the “evolution” of writing in text messages. Another attributed it in part to feminism.
But this is the Facebook comment I found most striking, written no doubt with playful exclamation points to match the sarcasm wrapped in the euphemism:
I find it interesting the hills you decide to plant your flag?! You do you girl….!
I agree. It is an interesting hill to plant a flag on. To me, anyway, but I could talk about things like words and punctuation all day. It’s also an important hill, though, and I’ll use two arguments against the exclamation point to illustrate why.
1. “Congratulations” and other words or phrases expressing happiness or excitement don’t require an exclamation point. It’s implied.
“Implied” is a dangerous idea in the communication realm. In The Five Cs of Communication by Forbes Council Member Cheryl Keates, number one on the list is “Be clear.” Bad communication, Keates writes, “creates tension and a negative dynamic and environment.”
Implying and inferring, rather than clearly stating and correctly receiving, are considerable communication problems. How many divorces have been caused by things improperly inferred or implied? Well, we’ll probably never know, but we do know that sixty-five percent of all divorces are caused by communication problems, according to a survey of 100 mental health professionals.
If married people can’t communicate well enough in person to stay together, then it isn’t reasonable to expect that what’s implied in a text-based online conversation will be correctly inferred.
Brent Cole, who updated Dale Carnegie’s work with How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age, points out that digital tone is just as critical as in-person tone. In person, when given exciting news, we can smile in response. Hug. Jump up and down. Scream. We’ll usually find some physical way to express, “I hear you. I understand how excited you are. I will honor your elation with an appropriately positive reaction.”
Only if we dislike someone or what their news means, and only if we want them to know it, will we offer an expressionless, monotone, “congratulations,” the lack of even a capital C dully bobbing in dead eyes.
Berkeley Well-Being Institute founder Dr. Tchiki Davis, quoted in Tone in Writing 101: How Words Can Trigger Specific Emotions by Devon Delfino, says, “Perhaps because we have become accustomed to exclamation points and emojis, when they are missing, the text can seem angry or cold.” Delfino adds that people often read text as “slightly more negative” than what was intended by the writer.
Excluding emojis, Cole writes, our voice, whether written or spoken, is the only way to offer a digital smile: “Your written words are like the corners of your mouth. They turn up, they remain straight, or they turn down.”
Why make the effort to convey emotion in person but not in writing?
2. Exclamation points make women look weak or are emblematic of women’s socialization to be chipper, non-threatening, friendly.
A video published by the Wall Street Journal cites a 2006 study of work emails that found 73% of all exclamations were made by women, and that “women use exclamation points more than men in emails to seem more friendly and expressive.”
In the video, three executives—former Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Kate White, Zillow COO Amy Bohutinsky, and The Corcoran Group founder Barbara Corcoran—each read an email they’ve sent someone in a professional capacity. Bohutinsky, reading an email she’d sent someone she met at a conference, laughs at her own exclamations—“I didn’t really mean it that way”—and revises her message so that periods replace the exclamation points. After reading it aloud in the tone implied with periods, she says almost regretfully, “That sounds boring.”
Corcoran, whose email read, “It’s great to hear from you too” with an exclamation point, defends her punctuation by saying the email was addressed to a man with a big ego who “likes to be appreciated.”
White, reading an email she’d sent her editor that read “I love it” followed by four exclamation points, says she’s embarrassed by them, but, she explains, she wanted to make clear how pleased she was. “I was afraid just a period wouldn’t suffice.”
Corcoran, some time after her admission of having catered to a man’s ego with her exclamation point, says some of the most powerful men she’s communicated with “don’t even bother to put a period at the end.” She later declares that using an exclamation point as a woman “diminishes your power.”
I suppose this is true, but only if men are accepted as the standard of measurement when it comes to how powerful people should conduct themselves in writing.
Should how men do it determine how women do it?
I doubt it.
Using exclamation points, just like using turn signals, is a kindness so simple that it’s almost beautiful. In a situation in which someone is so excited about something that they share it online—where of course they’re hoping to see their delight reflected back at them—one more keystroke after a little word like “great” is a compassionate gesture. It says, “I acknowledge that I’m not the only one here. I won’t make it your responsibility to interpret my tone. I’m not afraid to be friendly or thoughtful. I respect you enough as a human being to communicate clearly.”
Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the novels The Age of the Child, Pretty Much True, and, under the pen name Chris Jane, The Year of Dan Palace. She’s a former adjunct English professor, former reporter/columnist/feature writer for a daily newspaper, former writing instructor, and a former editor of the literary journal American Fiction (New Rivers Press). She lives in Connecticut.