I am ashamed to admit it, but I must confess: I’m an exclaimer.
I’m not talking about verbal exclamations, although my wife and kids do say I can cut the volume a bit during my moments of high tension.
I’m talking about over-using exclamation marks in my digital communications.
Seinfeld fans may remember an episode where Elaine gets into an argument with a short-lived writer boyfriend over his unwillingness to use exclamation marks. “I would put exclamation points at the end of all these sentences!” she yells at him. “On this one! And on that one!” The argument spills over into Elaine’s work as an editor when she is called on the carpet by her boss for over-inserting exclamations in the boyfriend’s manuscript. “It was damp and chilly afternoon, so I decided to put on my sweatshirt!” And chaos and laughter ensue.
Seinfeld may be all about exclamation points more than it’s about nothing. But real life doesn’t need to be as exciting all the time. If everything gets an exclamation mark, everything is amped up, and like the boy (small person?!) who cries wolf, we won’t know when we really need to get excited.
In a previous job I noticed a phenomenon that one might call exclamation anxiety. I should say first that I liked all my co-workers, even if we annoyed the hell out of each other, which co-workers always try to do regularly. And I don’t begrudge anyone their choices of netiquette as expressed by how they punctuate their sentences. But lately I’m finding myself ending most of my emails with a “Thanks!” and then wondering if it were overkill. More and more, I’ve been pausing and wondering why it can’t just be “Thanks.”
The pause grows longer when it’s something mundane like acknowledging someone sending me a spreadsheet template during budgeting season. I’m not an accountant or finance person, so why should I get all exclamatory at the idea of filling out a budget? The only sentences with the word “budget” that are reasonably acceptable uses of an exclamation point are:
- “I’ve finished my budget!”
- “Thank you for approving my budget!”
- “I stayed within budget!
- “I’ve gone over budget!”
A quick spot-check reveals no instances of “Thank you for sending the budget template!” or “It’s time to review the budget!” or “I can’t seem to find the budget!” None of these are emergencies, in my humble opinion.
But now that the exclamatory genie is out of the punctuated bottle, I’m made to feel (note the passive voice!) like I’m letting down the people in my work orbit if I just say, “Thanks.” Am I not conveying the same level of enthusiasm that they are? (Or more likely, are they just better at faking enthusiasm than I am?) Ah, the sad, lonely, quiet life of an ordinary period. It’s just there, but nobody sings its praises. They just level out the volume, not too loudly, not too softly.
It makes me wonder why there is no negative exclamation point—a punctuation mark that tells you to quiet it down a bit instead of screaming to the world. (Or is quietness conveyed by parentheses, like these.) Maybe we should create a new symbol that ends quiet sentences, like an index finger over closed lips.
Until then, I’m just going to try my hardest to exclaim a bit less. What do you think? I want to hear your opinion! (Well, maybe not that loudly.)
Since writing the above words for an earlier incarnation of the Digital Contrarian back in 2018, I have witnessed an exponential leap in the use of exclamation points. We’re still emailing each other exclamation points, and online forums are most definitely a place where arguments and excitement abound.
But on the professional communication front, I think there’s one major culprit: Slack.
I would wager that if you looked at my Slack messages on my previous and current jobs (or much more smartly, had a computer look for you), you would find that my use of exclamation marks exceeded 40% of my communications, if not 50%. I’m the type of guy who always likes to say thanks, and if you’re typing out the word “thanks” in Slack, chances are you’re adding an exclamation at the end, right? Or you’re abbreviating it to “Thx” and adding Thx’s obligatory exclamation mark at the end to compensate for your apparent disinterest in typing out the full word. A “Thx” without an exclamation mark, with just a period, is…well, sad. (I get choked up just thinking about it.)
Meanwhile, if you’re not choosing to type it out at all, you can use one of 17,000 emojis that depict a thank-you. My current job must have at least that many, most of which are loudly and proudly exclamatory.
In my last job I was also the Slack administrator, so I had the fun task (in my abundant spare time) of updating emojis for the team. With such great power comes great responsibility, and that is why my first move was to add additional parrots from Cult of the Party Parrot. My favorite there was Harpo Parrot, which has a built-in exclamation mark because it comes with honking horn. You’re free to join this cult too, but Groucho Parrot doesn’t want to join any parrot club that would accept him as a parrot member.
I still don’t know if I should slow my roll on exclamation marks, in part because they just roll off your keyboard so easily. I also don’t know if all this exclaiming is a sign of a louder and more argumentative society. All I know is: I don’t want to do the research to find out! So if you care to share any, feel free to comment. Otherwise, I appreciate you following my ramblings, so Thx!