This week's Friday Food for Thought is dedicated to the Exclamation Mark, also known as the “exclamation point”.
Unexciting? Perhaps. But relevant in more ways than you might suspect - especially in today’s age of tweeting and texting, where every typed character matters.
Back in the day, my use of exclamations marks was, shall we say, conservative. This is because I had been taught that use of that line with a dot meant you had an important statement to make. Whether in books, reports, letters or emails, sentences ending with an exclamation mark were to be taken seriously. Exclamation marks were reserved to expressing strong feelings or emotions; or they served as a warning sign, to alert people to serious danger or to create a sense of urgency.
But somewhere along the line, that changed.
I went with the flow, meaning: I fell into the widespread habit of adding emojis and (multiple) exclamation marks to my WhatsApp texts and other messaging devices, as a way to express emotions,
No harm in that, right? Well, as ever, things are not quite so simple… Turns out the inflationary use of exclamation marks can cause considerable woe to the person they are addressed to.
Here’s an example to illustrate my point:
A few weeks ago, Bob (a client) asked me to “decode” a WhatsApp message he had received from his new boss. The message read:
"Listen to this!!!"
and included a link to a news article concerning a topic Bob's boss had previously discussed with him.
Hmmm, I thought, seems pretty straightforward - and so was my response:
Me: "Your boss wants you to click on the link and read the news article.”
Bob: “So why add three exclamation marks? That's rude and offensive!”
(Note the exclamation mark at the end of Bob’s sentence...)
Me: “Well, perhaps he was excited about the article and felt it was relevant to what you had discussed with him.”
Bob: “So you’re not sure either? What he sent me was relevant. But the way I read those exclamation marks is that my boss thinks I’m a lousy listener, which is so not true!”
Hmm, an overly sensitive read of an innocent message? Or a frustrated boss who doesn’t quite know how to tell Bob he’s not happy with him?
The trouble is: a written message does not disclose how the writer would say it out loud.
Did Bob’s boss use the exclamation marks to say “Listen to this!!” or was their purpose more of a “Listen to this!!”?
Same words (and exclamation marks), but implying two very different meanings. In the first case, excited to share information, in the second case, hurtful, suggesting to Bob that he is a bad listener.
So, what to do about it? Gloss over the matter, which is probably the easier route to take, or find a way to clarify with the sender?
This is what happened next:
Me: “My gut feeling is that your boss has no underlying agenda and just wants to share information with you. But why don’t you ask him?”
Bob: “What do you mean?”
Me: “Well, if you don’t address the matter, I am pretty sure it will affect your relationship with your new boss, and not in a good way. In contrast, if you approach him, which may feel like the harder thing to do, you’ll find out what he meant and can move forward with a better understanding of each other and your respective communication styles.”
Bob: “Hmmm, not sure I want to do that.”
Fair enough, each to their own. After all, we walk in our own shoes.
That said, I wasn’t quite ready to let this one go; so, I decided to contact Bob again, to find out how he had dealt with the matter.
Bob: “I didn’t broach the subject with my boss. But I've been listening differently to him and have picked up on his penchant for exaggerating, not just with exclamation marks. He’s an avid user of superlatives and generally very exuberant. I realise now that his message to me wasn’t anything personal. It’s just the way he rocks. So, I’m OK with it.”
Paradoxically, the awareness needed to clarify the issue came from Bob’s perceptive listening skill, in other words, from the very skill he believed his boss was questioning.
This is just one example of how punctuation, especially multiple exclamation marks, can cause major headaches.
Since there are-and will be-many more examples out there, let me leave you with two suggestions:
Firstly, if you happen to be an over-user, before you press the “send” button, take a moment to check why you have included one or more exclamation marks. If in doubt, speak your message out loud to get a sense of how your writing would sound.
Is the intention obvious, inoffensive and appropriate? Or are you adding them out of habit and void of purpose? If so, my kind advice to you is to do without, especially if you were planning to use several. If you have a purpose, then express the purpose in words first, before adding an exclamation mark.
If you are excited, then say “I am excited!”
If you are upset, then say “I am feeling upset.”
Generally, if your message is unmistakably positive, an exclamation mark is unlikely to cause any undesirable innuendo. If you are annoyed, angry or upset, stick to words rather than exaggerating your punctuation.
And my final point:
if you are the recipient of punctuation loaded messages that leave you confused, possibly even hurt. rather than feeling bad and upset, put the question to the sender. Ask what the intention is. As long as your question is kind and considerate, you can expect to gain clarity and reduce the risk of future misunderstandings.
Enough said, except to say thank you for reading this edition.
I'll be back soon. Till then, stay safe and watch those exclamation marks(!)