Photo: Laura Gogia
We have already covered the difficult question of how to use emojis in the workplace. Now I will be leading you through an advanced course on whether or not you should use exclamation points.
Let’s be honest: It’s a divisive subject. Apple strongly advises its advertisers to avoid it in their promotions. The U.K. government restricted exclamation point usage in its primary schools, saying that sentences with exclamation marks must start with ‘what’ or ‘how’ to be creditworthy for tests. People who are against its use believe exclamation points are insincere — is anyone ever that enthusiastic about submitting expenses — and a sign of unprofessional behavior.
But despite the bad reputation this punctuation mark gets in certain circles, I use them in moderation at work. One colleague of mine explained plainly why he uses them so liberally too in his emails: “I want to be liked!” Me too! We all know too much gets lost in translation when it comes to abbreviated tone over the internet. When you’re writing business emails to clients, adding an exclamation point can be the difference between sounding coldly brusque or pleasantly friendly.
I like to err on the side of an exclamation point and would rather come off too enthusiastic than cold. I’m not alone in thinking this. A 2006 study found that women use exclamations points more than men, not as “markers of excitability,” but to signal friendliness to others.
Not even people who make their living from good grammar are immune to the exclamation point’s reign of supremacy. “Although my training tells me not to overuse exclamation points because they are shouty and juvenile, I find myself using them because I fear being seen as unfriendly or insincere if I only use a period,” Grammar Girl’s Mignon Fogarty told New York Magazine.
When to use an exclamation point
As a general rule of business correspondence, you should see how other people email you to get a gauge on how you should email them back. If a client is reaching out to you with multiple exclamation points, then you know that their baseline level of politeness requires liberal use of the exclamation point. Fine! You can adapt! Otherwise, you can stick to your authentic self as someone who prefers periods. (Which, by the way, make you sound like a jerk in text messages and other informal communications, like Slack direct messages or Google chat.)
Exclamation points can also soften demands and make sentences sound encouraging instead of accusatory: the difference between “I’ll need this by Friday. Thanks!” or “I’ll need this by Friday. Thanks.”
The stakes to using an exclamation point become higher around celebratory events. If someone is emailing you about their promotion, express your sincere joy through multiple exclamation points. And even if you’re not a big fan of the move, social pressure dictates that an exclamation point is needed over a period. In a online world where every communication can be loaded with meaning, you can’t say “congrats.” without coming off as a grump. But “congrats!” always sound right.
When not to use an exclamation point
But don’t go crazy and start using exclamations in every sentence of your business correspondence. That level of enthusiasm may make you sound unhinged in professional settings. There are also, of course, emails where you want to sound firm and friendly exclamation points wouldn’t help signal that.
The Muse recommends sticking to one exclamation point per email if you feel the urge: “Pick the place that you think it fits best in your written message, and then delete all of the others. Yes, it’s a little cutthroat. But, it’s undoubtedly effective.” That way, when the recipient reads it, the lone exclamation point gets the emphasis it deserves.
Whenever you’re in doubt, try reading your emails out loud. If the level of enthusiasm and emphasis sounds appropriate, send it off!