Troubled: Advice for Exclamatory E-mails

Q: My question is about exclamations versus periods in e-mails. I personally use exclamation marks but have known people to think they come off as overeager, overly casual, or insincere. What do you think? I am talking about the use of them in more of a tonal sense, not in a correct punctuation sense.

A: Hands-down I’m partial to them, but I tend toward a passel of superlatives in my personal e-mail to start with. Figuring out tone online is a beast, in part because we have the great, great liberty to type whatever we please—personal style guides that brim with asterisked actions, wayward capitalization and smileys, or even an interrobang. At their worst, these idiosyncratic stamps fail to translate. In person, such ambiguity is calibrated through tonal crutches: the expressive range of the human voice, the set of shoulder in a person’s stance.

But we’re talking e-mail. In a landscape of princely spam-scams, assorted acronyms, and MOAR, where does the exclamation point (cheery, enthusiastic, alarmed) fit? What you should consider is context: audience and personality.

For one, the level of formality fluctuates based on whom you’re writing (potential client or kid sister?) and what you’re saying (exuberance probably shouldn’t loom large in a sympathy note). Two, you might very well be the kind of person built on infinite pep, and your online voice should reflect that. A giant disconnect between you the person and your e-mail persona can be unsettling. It also doesn’t help your reader to interpret how you meant “cute!” versus “cute.” in reply to, say, an image of a small animal in costume. On the other hand, if you end every other sentence with an exclamation point, it’s hard to maintain that pitch of intensity and not appear “overeager” or a staunch fan of The National Enquirer. Modulation keeps a reader’s attention. And there should be some way for you to convey degrees of emphasis (whether it’s in all caps or italics, etc.), lest you run the risk of appearing too flat or robotic*.

Go ahead. The short answer is to use exclamation points as you would any other word or font style—with intent. As a broad rule, I would avoid a string of unspooled marks (like so: !!!!!), which skews a little fanatical. Anything else is yours. Give a last read-through, cull your fleet of exclamations, hit send, and presto, it’s gone, never to come back to haunt you, right? It’s only the internet.

*Robots don’t favor exclamations. As per my one-question interview with a chatbot. Science!

Have a question or topic you’d like to see addressed? Write to troubled@muledesign.com.

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