Work Emails Without Exclamation Points: Professional or Evil?
07.27.17

I understand, intellectually, why exclamation points are best-used sparingly. It’s simple economics: Too much supply decreases demand, thus robbing the mark of its true meaning. As Time’s Katy Steinmetz put it a few years ago, “Exclamation points used to be something you allowed yourself, a secret weapon unsheathed only at a rare and necessary moment.”

That was in 2014, when exclamation point slander was peaking in pop culture, alongside emoticon-hate and sorry-shaming. Back then, I never used exclamation points; I believed they ruined the joke, always, and would lose me job opportunities or something. But I have a theory, and it’s that everything’s back to being an AOL-level mess. Emojis count as sentences, memes count as emails and no one gives a fuck about “u” anymore. In fact, I use “u,” “lol” and “rn” almost exclusively because I think they’re funny and therefore superior to proper English. My use of them is barely even ironic anymore.

I reel it in a bit at work, but still, the rules of professionalism seem to have considerably loosened in the last five years. As far as exclamation points go, that leaves me about here:

Hi!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

As my personal grammar use has spiraled out of control, I’ve been more abusive of punctuation enthusiasm in the last year than I’ve been my whole life — so much so that a wise and quiet type recently advised me to “cool it” if I want to appear authoritative. After considering her point, I agreed to give it a shot. Surely making my emails less happy and more stoic would help me appear self-actualized and like everything I said was right even if it wasn’t.

But what they don’t teach you in finishing school is how to not sound like an axe murderer without the friendly buffer of exclamation points. We’re in a new era! Punctuation makes up for lost tone! When I started removing them from my emails, I sounded consistently flip and gruff, like my dad does via text message, which always stresses me out.

I do not want people to fear me. Likewise, I don’t want to sound unhinged, like I’ve had ten cups of coffee and am wearing a onesie. This leaves me in the hellish limbo that exists between the following:

Hi Jane!
Oh hey, I didn’t see you there! Welcome to this friendly message!
Hi Jane,
Sit the fuck down.
***
I’m glad we had a chance to catch up!
I loved seeing you and admire you so much!
I’m glad we had a chance to catch up.
I’m dead inside.
***
Fine by me!
I’m cool, I’m easy, I don’t have an opinion!
Fine by me.
I’m mad at you.
***
Thank you for the nice words!
Wow I’m seriously so flattered holy shit!
Thank you for the nice words.
I don’t give a fuck about you. Who is this again?
***
I’m so excited for you!
This is a huge deal for you, little one, and I’m overjoyed on your behalf!
I’m so excited for you.
You don’t deserve good fortune and are a bad person.
***
Can’t wait!
I am counting the minutes!!!
Can’t wait.
I’ve cleared out space in my freezer for your chopped up body.


In the past month I’ve spent more time than I’m willing to admit typing and deleting exclamation points, unsure of which evil I was more willing to hitch my wagon to. It’s been a big waste of time and energy; my cat’s fur has never been more matted for lack of TLC. And yet, my toiling has bred no answers. Everyone I ask says they suffer from the same problem. I even heard it lamented on a Longform podcast!

Do you have this issue? Please, ppl, I beg of you. Teach me to traverse this perilous spectrum from which I cannot escape. My career and general well-being depend on it!!!

Collage by Ana Tellez.

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  • Ashley Hamilton

    The Hi Jane, makes me feel devastated for Jane.

    • Adrianna

      I didn’t intern before my first job after college, and I had no idea I was supposed to be writing “Hi Adrianna,” instead of “Adrianna.” My boss at that job omitted the “Hi” when she wanted to scold me via e-mail

      • Amelia Diamond

        hahahah so you were just doing first-name call outs no matter what? i love that GET TO THE POINT

        • Adrianna

          I literally didn’t send out any professional e-mails beyond cover letters before my first salaried position. It would’ve never, ever occurred to me that “Hi, Adrianna” was a thing

        • Wait people in the real world open emails with “Hi, Amelia” even when you’ve never met? Have I been insulting people for the last two years?!

          • Haley Nahman

            I’m downright appalled that people are omitting hi?!?!?! What kind of monsters!

      • Hayley

        I don’t know — I don’t think that every profession follows this rule. I work in an A&E firm and I find that almost everyone emits the Hi, unless you’re friends with that coworker.

        • Adrianna

          I worked in publishing and tech/e-commerce. Publishing was super formal, and tech is more lax. We still do the “Hi, Adrianna” in tech but also send informal responses too

          • Modupe Oloruntoba

            Publishing was more formal? Interesting!

          • Adrianna

            at least the firm I worked for – scholarly publishing owned by Europeans

          • Modupe Oloruntoba

            Ah, got it. When I hear publishing I think books and magazines.

          • Adrianna

            It was books! In NYC. The books were just written by professors and scholars

      • PJB

        I’m a lawyer and about three months into working, the partner I work for came into my office and said to me, “You’re not allowed to use “Hi” in emails anymore.” Now every single email I send starts with a first-name call out and I’m horrified.

      • Erica

        I absolutely HAAATE it when I get an email that begins with “Erica,” it just feels so condescending! Like I’m a little kid about to be put on time out!! It scares me because it means I probably fucked up somehow

      • Kat

        OH MY GOD I’ve been offending people for the last six years of my professional life. I did not realize hi was a thing as I just looked through all my emails and EVERYONE uses hi. Except me.
        I guess I’m just a horrid person

    • Laura Dambrosio

      I don’t mind it if you continue on the same line: “Hi Jane, I’m just following up on something we already talked about and want to add a casual greeting.”

      But a new paragraph?

      “Hi Jane,

      You’re dead to me.”

  • Rachel

    I never use exclamation points in emails for fear of seeming unprofessional. Although if I get a reply from someone who uses an exclamation point then I’ll pepper them in sparingly to my future emails with them!!!

  • 🙂

    Well, here are my interpretations:

    Hi Jane!
    Huh?!? You want my attention straight away?! How rude – I AM working (reading, resting …) right now.
    Hi Jane,
    hi there, I see you have some information for me. I’ll read it in due time.
    ***
    I’m glad we had a chance to catch up!
    You are? … OK.
    I’m glad we had a chance to catch up.
    So am I, it was nice and we both know and believe it. Now for the information.
    ***
    Fine by me!
    Since I have to … I’ll pretend it’s fine by me, too.
    Fine by me.
    Good to know. Now to the other stuff.
    ***
    Thank you for the nice words!
    Thank you for wasting your energy on this phrase.
    Thank you for the nice words.
    Is good. And the information you wanted to include?
    ***
    I’m so excited for you!
    Thank you, I can see that.
    I’m so excited for you.
    Thank you for wasting your energy on this phrase.
    ***
    Can’t wait!
    Good for you, I still need to do a ton of work before I have enough time for enthusiasm.
    Can’t wait.
    So you are busy, too. It will still be great, when the time is right, we both know that.

  • Adrianna

    I think one exclamation point towards the beginning of your e-mail is a good way to set the light-hearted tone you’re intending. But I’ve also thought about this in the context of how much we unintentionally treat women based on the way they’re speaking

  • Love this post Hayley! (Note the almost automatic use of an exclamation mark already…)

    I’ve been professionally “told off” for using exclamation marks in an email, but this same person seems so stern or flippant in their own without employing our humble line-and-dot friend. I’d say I’d rather seem over-eager than grumpy…

    Besma | Curiously Conscious

  • Emy M

    I tend to write my emails with unlimited exclamations points. Then in editing, I whittle it down to 1, maybe 2 (and sometimes 3). Like seasoning!

    • Modupe Oloruntoba

      Like seasoning, I love that!

    • Ciccollina

      Me too, I’m allowed one smily face OR one exclamation mark per email, no more.

    • laraerae

      Saaaaaame. How much time I’ve wasted reviewing my emails and deleting exclamation points!

  • Omg. I just died of laughter.

  • Emily

    THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. I don’t use any exclamation points in my emails, but everyone at my workplace thinks I’m emotionless sooo ¯_(ツ)_/¯ What can ya do? It’s hard to demand respect when you work with all dudes and you are a manager with minor acne and a baby face

  • I never used exclamation points in my emails in my old job at a small town newspaper, but now that I’m in the city, dealing with large brands and mommy bloggers, I find myself encouraged to use them. (Some of the women even use smiley faces, go figure). I’ve found a happy medium in surrounding business “period” sentences (That sounds horrible!) with kind language.

    I open with “I’ve heard great things about…” or “How has your summer been going?” and sign off with “I look forward to hearing from you” and “let me know what you think.” Everything in the middle doesn’t seem so blunt when its sandwiched between pleasant words.

  • T-Fierce

    I’ve pretty much just given up trying to maneuver around exclamation points–BUT I will frequently employ the dash to add an additional enthusiastic phrase and avoid the exclamation mark, like so: “I’m glad we had a chance to catch up–it was great meeting you for lunch.” More words, but less !!

  • Kat

    I feel like this must be an American cultural thing, because I read all the “.” ones as cheerful and the “!” ones as kinda… overexcited?
    But saying that I communicate with a lot of Norwegians and Swedes now for my job, and I’ve started picking up their habits of using ! and 🙂 all the time!

  • jdo719

    Exclamation points from work superiors can make or break my day. Especially on something as basic as a “thanks!” As such, I dole them out liberally to anyone reporting to me who has not like actively fucked something up. It may be overkill, but I know how good/relieved it makes me feel to receive them, so I just go for it. Overenthusiastic lawyering ftw.

    • Haley Nahman

      This is a great example of why being managed helps you be a better manager!

  • Julia

    In our office there is a somewhat heated debate about “Hi”, “Hello”, and “Hey”. I’ve always felt like “Hey Julia,” is COMPLETELY OUT OF LINE AND UNPROFESSIONAL. But my boss does it all the time??! Its so misleading. I sometimes have office email etiquette anxiety.

    • laraerae

      Mostly I use Hi and now I’m doubting it HELP

    • pamb

      ‘Hey’ to me is ‘trying hard to be casual’. I would use it with a friend but not a co worker. Maybe your boss wants to be known as the Cool Boss? 😉

  • Brielle Saggese

    When I’m writing to a fellow female colleague, I often pepper! my! emails! with! as! much! excitement! as! possible! just! naturally! and then for males, I find myself writing as dry as a bone. Anyone else?

  • Matt Little

    Poor Jane! I recommend over-indexing on exclamation points but also including an abundance of formal buzzwords to off-set the casualness. Like, for real.

    • Haley Nahman

      LOL MATT

  • Harling Ross

    you just made me laugh out loud 5 times at my desk stop being so funny

    • Haley Nahman

      I subsist on your laughter so no deal

  • Sabah Malik

    Punctuation enthusiasm is going on my resume right now!

  • Christine

    I skip the exclamation points (sometimes) but add a punctuation smiley. 🙂

    • Modupe Oloruntoba

      I use too many of these 🙂

      • Christine

        There’s always the ever-popular winky. 😉
        …but maybe that just seems sly. Wait, is it possible to use different text colors? That could add some tone and emotion to the message. XD

        • Modupe Oloruntoba

          Winky faces always translate to flirting here. Always! Don’t know why.

  • tmm16

    Um I always use exclamation points! Enthusiasm is appreciated! Plus I feel like if you read something that someone else wasn’t excited about, you also don’t feel excited reading it! Spread the excitement people!!!

    However, if it starts to feel overly forced, I will settle for a “.”, but overall the “!” is a must-have in my emails!

  • Modupe Oloruntoba

    Ahahahahahaha, I relate so much!

    And now I’m questioning my use of the above exclamation point and the following smiley. 🙂

    Cape Town work culture is really casual internally, people only bother showing any decorum when it’s an external email or a very formal one. We use single exclamation points all the time, and multiples almost as regularly, and we have now reached the point where omission seems to mean something sinister. I start a new job in a couple of weeks and I am determined to get better at clear, concise, mature, professional communication, which (for me) includes limiting my use of both exclamations and smileys, removing passive and apologetic language from my vocabulary, and maybe insisting on being addressed by my name and not by my nickname (that last one feels severe for some reason?). Thank you for addressing this, subliminal meanings in punctuation are a minefield to navigate!

    • Modupe Oloruntoba

      …and now I am wondering if this has to do with pressure we (women) feel to be positive and upbeat all the time, and if men struggle with the same thing in their work emails. In my experience they only use exclamation points when they are “stoked” or laughing at their own jokes?

  • gracesface

    Don’t even get my started on having to track someone down to ensure they saw and actually read your email when their response is MIA.

    • Modupe Oloruntoba

      #JustFollowingUp 🙂

  • Marta

    SAME. DILEMMA. #Ifeelyou

  • Charlotte

    I definitely have this issue! It can be especially hard to navigate because now, workplaces have become a lot more casual and thus, the way we communicate has become more casual.

  • Ashley Minyard

    Agh I struggle with this in literally every damn email. I guess my solve is to have a nice mix of sentence structure and punctuation? It kind of calms down the stoke !!! and makes it feel upbeat but professional???

    • Haley Nahman

      Def, creative wording can help, i.e. “Thank you so much.” sounds nicer than “Thanks!”

      • Modupe Oloruntoba

        Just realised, “Thanks!” can also sound pretty passive aggressive, depending on who sends it…

  • Bo

    I think this loosening of professional rules might be applicable more in creative industries. I’m a medical records officer and whilst there are a couple of people I email in a casual sense, with a few exclamation points (usually the ones I’m in contact with the most, aka 30 emails a day), as a rule I avoid any sort of casualness or abbreviations like those above. Especially considering I have to actually save some chains of emails as documentation that certain requests for medical information have been actioned accurately and in a timely manner – I’m not going to add fifty !!!!s to something that has a chance, albeit a slim one, of being subpoenaed and examined in court.

    However, I do have some little tweaks I add into emails to make them friendlier – I always call people by their first name (unless it’s a doctor), and I always thank them for contacting me at some point in the email. Also, I change up the punctuation a bit by using a hyphen instead of a full stop sometimes – just like that. I feel it’s an easy way to connect a whole lot of little points together and doesn’t look as blunt as all those tiny sentences one after another, flatly declaring their purpose and then sitting there staring at you.
    Do not throw out punctuation altogether though! One of my colleagues is from another generation and never punctuates anything – her emails are always at best hard to comprehend and sloppy-looking, and at worst come off as plain rude or like she’s attacking you.

  • Caitlin

    I definitely agree with the people saying sparingly is key! Like “Hi Jane! It was so great to catch up with you.” OR ” Hi Jane, It was so great to catch up with you!”

    I also think the shorter examples sound so much scarier with the periods! If you combine some of them or elaborate, I think they sound softer.

    • Haley Nahman

      Okay fine agreed agreed

    • Mallory

      The shorter thing – especially when you get the super scary “Ok.”

  • Claire Banks

    I am very, very pro exclamation points! Though I’ve definitely found that when it comes to work emails, I’ve tried to reel it in a bit over the last few years. [Case in point: I once had a male colleague respond to one of my emails commenting on how excited I was to be speaking with him… -_- eye roll emoji.] But generally, I write the way I talk. I’m an enthusiastic person by nature, so I’m not going to compromise that by flatlining in a text or an email.

    • Haley Nahman

      Bless

  • Madeline C

    I use them very sparingly at work because I always feel like it will make me sound young and ditzy. But now all the sudden i’m realizing after reading this that I’m really just using the word ditzy to avoid saying “girly.” And I hate the idea of anybody (including myself) making me feel bad about being girly/female in the workplace. I will not be ashamed!!!!

    • Haley Nahman

      Don’t be!!!

  • Clea

    Hahaha those translations – literally how I read emails sans exclamations. Spot on!

  • Monica Ceja

    When people use the phrases “I’m so excited” or “This is exciting” with periods, I feel lied to.

    Oh is it exciting? Then why didn’t you use an exclamation point?

    • Haley Nahman

      Great point.
      !

  • Jukebox_babe

    I work in fashion, and my MO is to use exclamations and very friendly verbiage if I’m writing to a peer or asking someone for a favor/help. If I’m writing to a superior or an email that my boss could be cc-ed into, I’m way more formal and stoic. In person, though, I’m always really polite, smiley and agreeable but not overly familiar, which I think reflects my email personality. I find it difficult to show disappointment or disapproval, even when my boss requests it of me. I can’t tell if it’s my nature or the fact that I’m a female and we’ve been conditioned to be agreeable and not make waves… I also wonder if being really succinct and removing abbreviations is an “old school” or male habit, or both?

  • Maggie Lanham

    hahah I love this article so much because this inner dialogue was me in the midst of corresponding with you, Haley! You all published my Antarctic MR Writer’s club submission and I went into a frenzy and just threw in every exclamation point possible, !between! !words!, at the end of clauses!, and it feels as if at some point I just ended an email like this: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! without signing my name. Glad I’m not the only one who struggles with this! Oh, whoops. Glad I’m not the only one who struggles with this.

    • Haley Nahman

      Lol, bring it on!

  • Natalie L Howlett

    I’m not an exuberantly friendly person in real life, but my email persona is just sugar and spice and everything nice (!). There’s something about an email that just feels so cold to begin with I think.

  • Sarah

    I love that Man Repeller is discussing this topic! I personally choose whether or not to use exclamation points based on how the individual I’m communicating with. If the sender uses exclamation points, for example, I will respond using exclamation points so that he or she doesn’t think I’m unfriendly.

  • Never use exclamation points in work emails. Keep them guessing, I say.

    Although where I work, it’s quite common for me to open an email from a colleague that says “Hi lovely”, or “Hay galfriend”, obviously these are just from work friends, but I do find the whole dropping some form of greeting like a simple Hi or Hello to be a little rude, but maybe that’s just me.

  • Katy

    I agree with all of your translations of those sentences. Exclamation points should be called “kindness indicators” and are 100% necessary

  • Lauren

    I realise this is about exclamation points but I’ve had a lot of work e-mails recently end with ‘kr’ in lieu of kind regards. WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH THOSE EXTRA 4 SECONDS YOU GAINED??

  • GrammarNinja

    My anxiety is about the dreaded question-mark-exclamation-point combo, “What’s this?!” or the the double q-mark, “Can you explain this??” If I’m getting either after 8 p.m., I’m not sleeping that night.

  • pamb

    I don’t send work emails (I’m a salesperson in retail) but I always use exclamation points in texts. I do think they help with tone. My husband doesn’t use them, and I know him well enough (obviously) to infer his tone, but the difference in our texts is amusing. I’m exclamation pointing, he uses periods or nothing at all. I look hyper, he looks dull. I would rather err on the side of looking Pollyanna-ish than have someone think I’m pissed.

    Maybe it’s a female thing. I can’t see my husband and his friends discussing punctuation. Or maybe it’s just me 😉 As my friends don’t use exclamation points as much as I do… 😉 !!!

  • Court E. Thompson

    Feel this SO MUCH.
    I am a chronic abuser of the exclamation point. At a fitness instruction job, I was dinged for not using them (because they saw it as evil) and so ramped up my use. Now at my law firm job, I have been told to tone them down, particularly when communicating with attorneys.

    I’ve started to be much more stingy with their use and if that makes me evil, so be it. It definite makes me feel more serious and as if I’m being taken more seriously which I’m ok with at this point in my career (30, looks 25 and occasionally treated like I’m right out of school,but trying to assert myself and going for what would be my first promotion ever).

    I say to ditch the points and use them only when you really feel it.

  • el

    I think it depends who you speak to. There are general rules or trends to be used as a format and from there I try to hone my craft, ha !
    Ok to be formal in certain industries, but I find the lack of salutation condescending and plain naff.
    ‘Hi’ might sound too casual for some but there are other formulas like ‘Mrs’, ‘Dear’, ‘Ave’, ‘Heil’ ? Please salute !

  • ErinPaige

    Reading these comments is making my new job in the Americas make a lot more sense now. I get a bunch of emails from people, following the US’s cultural lead and people in the US govt, that start with “Hi” and I am like, “what the hell is this?” I used to cover other regions (Africa, Asia) before and I am all about “Dear” or if I am feeling especially informal “Hello”.

    This makes no sense to me when meeting Americans in person because you guys are distant hand shakers and everywhere else I am trying to find out if I am doing two kisses or three, arm grabbing or hugging.

    And on top of this I have to wrap my head around exclamation points!?!

    Greetings are the worst.

  • I knew my Dad knew and saw me when he said I would also break up with a man for not using exclamation points when something wonderful happened, as Elaine Benes did. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyrKa9Hk4zM

  • Katedujour

    What timing! This was recently a sketch on the Canadian sketch comedy, baroness von sketch. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWA_j4Vy4oM

  • Katedujour

    this was recently a sketch on baroness von sketch (canadian comedy show). they sum it up quite perfectly.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWA_j4Vy4oM

  • Hannah Cole

    that dialogue is LITERALLY what runs through my mind as I type every email (caps are my new form of exclamation mark – but equally dangerous)

  • Emilie Evans

    I love using exclamation points, and do so with great joy! Yes, there is some rereading and whittling down, but overall, I keep them! Because honestly, I really mean it. See how serious that last sentence became? That’s how much I mean it when I use them! Keep it up. Be you.

  • Bernadette Aylward

    email is strange and mysterious. One of the times my sisters and I have laughed hardest was upon learning that our dad (who numbers his points in personal and professional emails) signs work emails “r/s”. WHAT COULD IT MEAN???? we had fun coming up with many options-really sorry, read snakes, etc. turns out it’s “respectfully submitted”. I could not work in his office of courteous robots.

  • Daria Poletaeva

    Another one is “Dear Daria”…oh gosh, it’s such “superiority alarm” and I literally read it as “Daria, I’m writing you to teach you a life valuable lesson”

  • b.e.g.

    I understand the point about the intended tone of your communication to friends, co-workers, and such. But the proper use of punctuation is as important as the proper use of grammar. We are letting the language slip into chaos. Chaos, like the rest of everything right now. Sounding friendly in an email can be achieved by using friendly words. Anyone who interprets an email as unfriendly because certain sentences don’t end in exclamation points is basically an idiot. A paranoid idiot. Commas are important too. The use of commas can change the meaning of a sentence. There was recently a court case being decided on the use (actually the lack) of a comma. Proper use of language is a beautiful thing. Language can get us into trouble as much as out of trouble. Colloquial language is not accepted in formal school papers for a reason. Think about something written today with all the crazy lingo that is currently used. Now think about that same piece being read 200 years from now. Read something properly written from the past (a classic say) and the main thing you will notice is that it speaks to you now, yet it is from a past era. From decades to millenia. Write as if you were communication to someone 1000 years from now.

  • Maryam Ele

    My anxiety just reached a whole new level of horrifying.