Exclamation Points: An Authenticity Issue

Last week, I got a bit of crap from I was chided by one of my colleagues for sending a 4-line email with three (three!!) exclamation points. This colleague also pointed out that I occasionally sprinkle my tweets with exclamation points.

This is a problem. These exclamation points, s/he explained, are simply “not professional”.

“Not professional.”

Those are fighting words, are they not?

We who write about business, critique organizations, advocate social change, etc. are supposed to be professional, whether we’re using e-mail, or Twitter, or any other medium. Otherwise, you all “they” don’t take us seriously.

201001201251.jpg[Note, in just the last week, my tweets have included the terms “Foucault”, “Saussure”, and “capitalism-enhancing”. But apparently those words don’t detract from my professionalism. ]

Do exclamation points really dilute my authority as an expert?

Tarnish my PhD?

Make me seem more like a mom blogger than a business blogger?

I know that we have gendered definitions of what it means to be “professional”. Women are held to different standards than are men when it comes to demonstrating our professionalism, because people have different expectations of men and women. So, I can appreciate that there may be some behaviors that are ‘unprofessional’, and might seem even more “unprofessional” when they come from women. Or me.

But are exclamation points one of these unprofessional behaviors?

For me, it’s important to be authentic in my communication — to be as direct, as clear, and as “me” as possible. Frankly, I am occasionally bemused by my own use of exclamation points, emoticons, emotional words inside brackets, cr*&sed out cuss words, and some occasional lolspeak [ e.g., I can haz paradimz!]. But yo, that’s how I roll. For real.

[Still, despite my fondness for Hello Kitty, I am not a smiley-face kind of gal. Not really. So I do see the contradiction there.]

But what is really going on with the critique of my use of exclamation points?

Let’s look at the research on gender and exclamation points!

[Of COURSE there is research on this! I found it in November when I was researching how we create social presence online through social media! And since I bookmarked it, I can go straight back there!]

Past research has reported that females use exclamation points more frequently than do males.

Such research often characterizes exclamation points as “markers of excitability,” a term that suggests instability and emotional randomness [emphasis mine] …

The present study uses a 16-category coding frame in a content analysis of 200 exclamations posted to two electronic discussion groups… The results indicate that exclamation points rarely function as markers of excitability in these professional forums, but may function as markers of friendly interaction, a finding with implications for understanding gender styles in email and other forms of computer-mediated communication. — Waseleski, C. (2006)

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Hmm…past research suggests that exclamation points suggest instability and emotional randomness.

And they are used more often by men than women.

I start to see the problem… Instability and emotional randomness are obviously not professional characteristics — and these characteristics are particularly damning for female professionals.

But what did this research actually find?

    • Females use exclamations significantly more than do males
    • People use exclamation points to express thanks and friendliness (32%), and to emphasize facts (29%) more often than they do to reflect excitability (9%)
    • “Thanking, whether of the friendly or effusive type, was also a predominantly female behavior (in this study). These findings are consistent with Herring’s (1994) observation that female online discourse style is characterized by “supportiveness,” which includes “expressions of appreciation, thanking, and community building activities that make other participants feel accepted and welcome” (p. 4). “

The results of this study do not support the notion that exclamation points function solely or even primarily as markers of excitability.

So apparently our generalized perception of how exclamation points are used online is different from what the data actually tell us what we think exclamation points from women are saying is different from what women who use exclamation points are actually trying to say.     Looks like we have to listen to what women are actually saying.

Thus, I conclude that while exclamation points are often seen as ‘markers of excitability’ when used by women, in fact:

Exclamation points are tools for communicating thanks, friendliness and warmth!

I refuse to equate appreciativeness, friendliness and warmth with being “unprofessional”. So there!!.

If you get a tweet from me with an exclamation point, just imagine it as this:   🙂  or this:   <3

I can’t wait for Waseleski’s study of emoticons!

Waseleski, C. (2006). Gender and the use of exclamation points in computer-mediated communication: An analysis of exclamations posted to two electronic discussion lists. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(4), article 6. http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol11/issue4/waseleski.html

Image from Trenton Garden of Sculpture by bobjagendorf on Flickr
A print of “Exclamation Point” by AndreaDaquino can be purchased on his site.