As first-year associates, my peers and I are learning to navigate a new workplace and its culture. I suddenly find myself saying things like “out of pocket” and “circle back,” and I’ve never sent or received more e-mails than I have in the last six months. Recently, I received an e-mail from a senior associate responding to a research summary I had written, that read: “Thanks for this.” Thanks for this. Period. My immediate reaction was to question whether the associate was unhappy with my work product. My officemate, who is a fellow first-year associate, and I read and re-read the email, and finally concluded that I was reading into the senior associate’s punctuation an inference that was not there. Which led us to wonder, why had the absence of an exclamation point caused me to think she was dissatisfied with my work?
I’ve found that I, like many other female associates, tend to end e-mails with an enthusiastic “Thanks!” In fact, my in- and out-boxes are filled with “Thanks in advance!” “No problem!” “Sounds good!” “Sure!” and “Will do!” I also work with plenty of men who use exclamation points, but when I started paying attention to it, realized that the absence of exclamation points in emails I receive from male colleagues does not elicit the same reaction as when I receive exclamation-less emails from female colleagues. I unconsciously assume that when used by a man, a period is just a period, not a vehicle for subtext.
“It has to be a gender thing,” we concluded, and took to Google. As it happens, there are a number of studies that have explored gender and the use of punctuation. A 2016 study showed that 73% of all exclamations in computer-mediated communication were made by women. It found that women use them to convey friendliness or enthusiasm about the work they are doing. In an environment that is still largely male-dominated, especially at the top, my female colleagues and I may subconsciously feel that we need to show enthusiasm and express gratefulness; Gratefulness to be heard, to be considered, to be here.
So what should we do with this information? Do we stop using exclamation points entirely? Some would say yes. In a Wall Street Journal report, real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran said that when a woman uses a lot of exclamation points in an e-mail, she assumes the woman is insecure, a bad communicator and may be trying too hard. Others take a different view. Zillow COO Amy Bohutinsky encourages the use of exclamation points, but in moderation and in a way that feels authentic to the writer. She recommends “leaning into the punctuation” to more concisely communicate and to ultimately be better understood.
The time that women spend scrutinizing communications—both those received and sent—is a distinctly gendered burden. And the reality is that the burden is not merely self-inflicted: women’s use of punctuation is perceived differently than men’s, and whether we like it or not, there are professional ramifications for how we are perceived in the workplace. So here’s my humble take: I’m going to re-evaluate my own handling of exclamation points. Do I really need to soften a question I am entitled to ask or a suggestion that will positively impact my team? Probably not. I am also going to resist the instinct to feel that I am here as a favor. On the receiving end, I will check my own assumptions when I read the next “thanks for that.” At the same time, I’ll embrace the exclamation points that are a reflection of my outgoing personality or my genuine enthusiasm for a new project. So here goes: Thanks for reading my article! Exclamation point! Now I have to turn back to document review. Period.
Leyla Salman is an associate in Debevoise’s New York office.
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