Why do women use more exclamation marks than men?
Why one little piece of punctuation shapes how we see people, what women can do to be seen as more professional in the workplace and why Hemingway would have had a tough time on social media.
Love them or hate them, to exclaim or not to exclaim: that is the question.
Because although it’s a teeny tiny thing it punches above its weight.
Sometimes it’s clear when to use exclamation marks like when there’s a sense of urgency or drama.
“O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?”
Danger, deep water!
Or this classic cartoon…
And for something more current: Most of the scenes from Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again that you’d describe to your friend who hasn’t seen it, yet (especially the Waterloo number that is just so much bonkers fun).
To exclaim or not to exclaim
But when it comes to everyday communication, between colleagues and clients and on social media, the question of whether to exclaim or not to exclaim can be a little more complicated.
Does using the exclamation mark make us sound shrill? Does it add warmth or weakness?
If we use too many does it sound LIKE WE’RE SHOUTING?
And what’s too many? Does that depend on whether you’re 14 or 40 or who your audience is?
In a fascinating Netflix documentary series called Explained the exclamation mark was put under the spotlight. It revealed that how men and women use and perceive exclamation marks is different.
Take the following brief and fairly common email:
Good Morning! I hope you have received the project. Please let me know if you have any questions. Thanks!
When told this was sent by a female colleague 49% of men found it to be professional.
But when told this was sent by a male colleague only 36% of men found it to be professional.
In another piece of research it was shown that 73% of all exclamation marks were made by women compared to 27% by men, showing that it’s a more common communication tool for the fairer sex.
Is it because exclamation points are code for nice and in our society women more than men are socially conditioned to be appealing, warm and likable? And this conditioning is whether it’s sending an email to Anna in accounts or representing their country at the EU.
The linguist Deborah Tannen explains that women have a tough choice to make when it comes to using exclamation marks: using too many is seen as making them less competent than their male counterparts but if they don’t use enough they’re not considered friendly or warm.
A novel approach
All this isn’t to say that throughout history exclamation marks have been the domain of women.
Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick in 1851 and he was fond of the exclamation mark.
He used 1,683 of them in his famous novel.
A few decades on in 1934, F. Scott Fitzgerald penned Tender is the Night with a liberal sprinkling of 248 exclamation marks.
Fast forward a few years to 1951 and Hemmingway brings us The Old Man and the Sea.
Hemmingway was a man of restraint. A lot of restraint. Binge watching Netflix would not have been a problem for this guy.
He used one exclamation mark. You can only imagine the agony that went into placing that.
Social media mischief
But what about modern communication methods?
Debates, declarations and digs are the order of the day on social media platforms and exclamation marks are littered everywhere.
Yet the tone here can range from ‘I don’t really mean this and I’m actually winking when I say it’ to ‘I’m on my high horse here: but just a little bit.’
If a bunch of exclamation marks are used then it could be a very high horse the person is on or that they are pee their pants excited as in ‘She’s had the baby!!!!!!!!!!!”
Like so much of communication, context is king and who your audience is can colour how you communicate with others.
When you use this tiny piece of punctuation makes a big difference to your communication.
And because of that it can make a big difference to your relationships, at work and in your personal life.
Use it wisely!