Language plays a vital role in perpetuating sexism and discrimination, which reflect and reproduce power imbalances in society. A natural starting point for any discussion of language, power, and gender is linguist Robin Lakoff’s proposition that men’s and women’s speech differ substantially, and that these differences reflect women’s powerlessness in society. It is suggested that lexical hedges, tag questions, rising intonation, empty adjectives, intensifiers, and super-polite forms constitute some of the differences. The workplace is no exception to gendered language dynamics. A particular pressure is placed on women to adopt traditionally masculine communication styles in order to be perceived as professional.
Today, the exclamation mark is the subject of scrutiny.
The exclamation mark serves as an extension of spoken language, and scattering them through pieces of digital communication, be it an email or text, serves the purpose of capturing the way we speak and interact in person. Several studies have documented the gendered use of exclamation marks in digital communications, where they function as markers of sincerity and friendliness alongside their practical function of indicating, well, an exclamation. This seemingly harmless punctuation mark has found itself intertwined in the tangled web of gender norms and can be said to be an expression of gender differences in behaviour and communication styles.
Women are trapped in a punctuation gender game. A 2006 study, the only existing research on this particular subject to this date, found that nearly three-quarters of all exclamation marks in online correspondence were used by women. Exclamation marks are frowned upon due to their inherent enthusiasm, associated with vapid femininity and unprofessionalism. The assumption is that all forms of written communication, especially in a professional context, should be devoid of emotion. But why must we abandon the exclamation point? Shouldn’t our continued use of enthusiastic exclamation points serve as a form of protest? Who decided that enthusiasm is unprofessional?
To be taken seriously in professional environments, women are told to ditch their exclamation-induced enthusiasm and write like their men counterparts. This is nothing new. Assertiveness over email (in other words, abandoning any attempt to convey tone through punctuation) is considered to be a key success factor. How many exclamation marks does it take to seem enthusiastic, but not frivolous? In the interest of professionalism, women are advised to draw the line at one measly exclamation mark per email, or avoid them at all cost. Why? To avoid compromising their professional image with the weakness of emotion, enthusiasm, and everything else inherently associated with this particular punctuation mark.
On the one hand, shunning the exclamation mark is an easily-implementable and pragmatic solution to surviving and thriving in a men-dominated (corporate) environment. Yet, this line of thinking places the burden of change on the individual, rather than addressing the collective societal structures that foster this kind of behaviour. Why should women have to email like men — and why do we associate professionalism with men? Exclamation marks are one of the tools to add tone and communicate our meaning more clearly. Isn’t that the professional thing to do?
The demand for women to conform to masculine communication norms is emblematic of a broader societal bias that associates assertiveness and competency with masculinity. Women who deviate from these norms are often deemed less professional or incompetent. This bias compels women to adopt communication styles that mirror their men counterparts, one that suppresses the use of exclamation marks, and erodes the unique perspectives and forms of communication that women can bring to the table. Yet, the Catch-22 is, this same enthusiasm is simultaneously expected of women.
There is no winning. Use them too often, and you run the risk of being perceived as incompetent. Use them sparingly or not at all, you might come across as impolite and aggressive (if not worse). Too friendly, or not friendly enough. A tricky situation indeed! The exclamation mark is a grammatical manifestation and extension of the emotional labour that typically occurs in an office setting, whereby the burden of managing one’s emotions during workplace interactions seems to always fall on the shoulders of the same marginalised people — a balancing act of both working hard to be liked and taken seriously.
This begs the question, does the question mark next run the risk of prohibition? Perhaps questions are out, too. We would not want to express an ounce of weakness, ignorance, or doubt in our writing. Punctuation seems to be the tip of the iceberg of gender inequality.
The exclamation mark’s plight as a gendered punctuation mark is a glaring example of the oppressive norms that still plague our society. Women should not have to abandon their communicative inclinations to be taken seriously in professional settings. At the very least, we must question the idea that professional communication should be a robotic exchange of words devoid of personality and emotion. Recognising the influence of language in shaping power dynamics, it is incumbent upon all of us to challenge and redefine gendered language norms.
With an awareness of the power of language and punctuation, we can reshape the landscape of professional communication with the goal of fostering a more inclusive society, where all voices are heard and valued, regardless of gender.