The Cohort: Should women stop using exclamation points at work?

Welcome back to The Cohort. We’re joined again this week by Liz Plank, a senior correspondent at Vox Media and the co-host of a forthcoming podcast exploring divisions amongst women in America. The Cohort’s founder, Katie Hawkins-Gaar, returns next month. She sends her love.

Thanks!

Looking forward!

You rock!

Why do I feel the need to sign off every work email like I’m an extroverted camp counselor who just crushed a six-pack of Red Bull?

Whether it’s ending sentences with (one or many) exclamation points or sprinkling emoticons and gifs or extra letters around for nooooo specific reason, my compulsion had me wondering, can a simple punctuation mark shape the way colleagues perceive me?

When I looked at the research, I realized I’m not alone. Data from the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication showed that women do in fact use more exclamation points than men.

And they also insert more emoticons and unnecessary letters in their communications to express intonation or emotion. Of course, some of this is just internet-speak, but why is there a gender-specific imbalance?

Women’s tendency to overuse exclamation points is partly due to the fact that women and men just have very different communication styles.

While men tend to use conversation to display knowledge, women use it to build and maintain relationships. This could make them more eager to express warmth or closeness through language.

Another theory that Jill Filipovic talks a lot about in her new book “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness,” is that women feel more pressure than men to make others happy. Women’s desire to appease and please could be what all those exclamation points are about.

This gets even more complicated for women in leadership, who are expected to display confidence, but not too much. We can get some clues for how to handle this from other women in leadership. Their advice includes being authentic, which Katie has written about before.

So should women change the way they communicate or should we all just get a grip? Perhaps men should be the ones to learn from women and not the other way around. Or do we just need to just accept that we are all different?

I asked the person who made perhaps my favorite tweet on the subject, journalist and author Jessica Valenti.

Why do you think women use more exclamation points?

Anecdotally, I think it's because women feel like the need to come across as constantly friendly and accessible. And they're right to feel that way, unfortunately — there have been numerous studies about the way women are viewed in the workplace, and being "unlikeable" is a real issue. I think it's a way for us to come across as non-threatening or to relay friendliness in a format where tone can be unclear.

Should women use fewer exclamation points or alter the way they communicate to earn more respect in the workplace?

I'm not into the whole genre of workplace advice that tells women to stop saying sorry or stop using exclamation points, etc. I think these are individual solutions for what is a systemic problem. There's also the issue of — what happens when women alter their behavior and are punished for it?

Do you think there's a generational divide in the way that young and older women communicate? I often hear from older women who believe young women shouldn't engage in up-speak or use smiley faces in emails. Should young women change their behavior or should older women be more understanding of the way younger women speak?

I don't know about the generational aspect — but I do think that we need to stop attacking or demeaning each other for the way we speak, write and work. Women are smart and have developed mechanisms in the workplace for surviving and balancing the often conflicting expectations put on us. Instead of advising women to avoid upspeak, let's advise men to stop being assholes about our vocal tics. :)

What rules do you try and live by when it comes to communicating assertively in the workplace?

I don't have any rules for myself, but I do try to set out expectations early on in a work relationship. I expect to be treated with respect and have my ideas listened to, and I want people to expect the same of me in return! Exclamation point!

 

So it seems that, like things lady-related in the workplace, it’s a tough balancing act. Employing expressive language can come off as immature, but communicating with a dryer tone could also be perceived negatively because women are expected to be friendlier. Since women are in held up to an impossible standard, perhaps it’s time to flip the narrative entirely and stop comparing their behavior to men’s behavior assuming it is the gold standard. Maybe then we’d realize that women aren’t using too many exclamation points, but that it was men who were using too few all along.

– Liz


Things worth reading and trying:

Remember back in November when we shared Rebecca Ruiz’s survey looking into how family-friendly newsrooms are? The results are in! Jessica Harllee put data behind crying at work. And this plug-in won’t help with exclamation points, but check out Just Not Sorry, which can identify ways you’re undermining yourself in those work emails.

The Cohort was founded by Katie Hawkins-Gaar, who’s currently on leave. In the meantime, you can revisit the archives. And don’t forget to be kind to yourselves.

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