Back in the day, the rules were simple.
In the office? Suit and tie. Write a memo? Keep it formal.
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Today, social mores have changed and the default setting is often business casual. That means the clothes we wear on down to how we communicate. Two recent studies suggest the office is more like an Ultimate Fighting Championship bout than dignified place of work.
– Marketing firm DDB found millennials would take credit for someone else’s work to get ahead fives times as often as baby boomers.
– Job placement service RiseSmart reports 16 percent of workers criticize employers online.
It seems we have entered an anything-goes era in the workplace. Where are the rules?
If you want to jump on email and bash your boss, go ahead. But before you click “Send,” I have one request: cut back on the exclamation marks.
Yes, we glide from gmail to Twitter to gchat and the messages muddle together, but work email should remain a cut above. You might sell patriotic kitten ornaments or cakuleles, but business is business and money is money. Too many exclamation marks imply you’re young and inexperienced (like this). Right or wrong, they make people question your seriousness.
I created the guide below to understand how to employ exclamation marks in work emails. I’m not so rigid and old-school to suggest they disappear altogether. As in all things, moderation is key.
Hello and goodbye
Let’s start where all emails begin: the introduction. Plenty of people open a work email with:
They also end with:
Have a great day!
Exclamation marks at the beginning and end. No big deal.
The other half of the population goes with:
And for the finish…
Have a great day.
Which one is right? They both are. Intros and outros are just that; the entrance and exit of the conversation. They are only pleasantries so, yes, you can come and go with an energetic tone (!) or something more subdued. Either way, it’s not a distraction to the reader.
Let the other person make the first move
Now we depart the safe harbor of the email introduction (where the exclamation mark is up to you) and enter the treacherous unknown: the body of our message. Here’s where exclamations are a far riskier game.
If you already led with:
Then you might think it’s fine to keep on rolling with the excited streak:
I want to send an email to catch everyone up on the project since we have a lot going on! Please respond that you saw this email so I know you’re in the loop!
And the reader thinks:
“Yeesh, calm down over there. It’s Monday morning, and I haven’t even finished my coffee.”
So let’s make a new plan. Rather than start off strong with exclamations, let other people make the first move and match their emotion. That way, you’re always in line with how they want to exchange messages.
If the person writes back:
Thanks so much for the note!
Then you say:
If the person goes with:
Thanks so much for the note.
Then you reply:
When you defer to other people, you’re always right. If they want to drop exclamations here and there, so do you. If they prefer to keep it plain, you feel the same way.
In parts I and II, I make the case you can go either way with exclamation marks. In part III, the tune changes.
Double exclamations have no place in a work email. I make no apologies for that rule.
There’s a difference between energetic and overkill, and it happens somewhere between ! and !!
If you’re on g-chat or talking to a friend through Gmail, go nuts!!!
But when it comes to work, the double exclamation is double trouble. Remember: you’re a working professional. Business is business. Money is money.
You need people to feel comfortable using you or your firm. If you’re young and dropping !! everywhere, it could be seen as a red flag.
When the exclamation is necessary
You might be like my dad and against exclamation marks in all work-related situations. Maybe it’s generational and millennials find online communication so casual and natural.
Anyway, part IV is where you “learn the rules and break them.” That’s because there are situations where an exclamation mark matters even if you don’t like to use one.
I just want to tell you I landed the promotion so now I’m VP of development for the entire east coast. Thought you’d like to know the good news!
That’s a pretty big deal, right? You can’t come back with:
That’s great news. Congrats.
Your answer does not match the person’s emotion. At all. No, the moment deserves:
That’s great news! Congrats!
If you want the person to know you’re excited, then you need an exclamation mark. Plus, if the person wrote the big news email to a group and everyone else has responded with:
There’s no way you could drop in with:
Not only do you appear unenthusiastic…it kinda sounds like you aren’t happy for the person and sending good wishes through gritted teeth.
Some moments require you to fall in line.
Trust your instincts
When you finish composing an email, look over your work. How many exclamation points have you used?
If it “feels” like you overdid it, then you overdid it. Even if you’re only trying to keep pace with the other person’s ! usage.
No matter what, you never want to appear less professional than the person on the other end.
You want to be…what’s the word?