Mind & Body

Exclamation Points Are Out of Control, and It's Stressing People Out

When you think of causes of anxiety, things like natural disasters, serious illnesses, and social humiliation probably spring to mind. But according to a growing stack of studies, a completely unexpected aspect of life has increasingly been stressing people out — punctuation.

Related Video: The History of the Exclamation Point

Exclamation Points Really Are Out of Control!!!!

This might sound ludicrous at first but think back over your email and texting history. Were there times when you hovered over the keys agonizing over whether an exclamation point would make you look enthusiastic or dippy? Have you ever received a message with no closing punctuation at all and wasted hours trying to puzzle out if you did anything to tick off the sender?

If so, you too have fallen victim to a phenomenon that's been labeled "punctuation inflation." Once, not too long ago, we were all taught in English class that exclamation points should be reserved for only the most extreme and emotional situations.

"At journalism school, I was told that you get one exclamation point to use in your entire career, so you should use it wisely. You could, perhaps, spend your one exclamation point on a headline like 'WAR OVER!' but nothing less would merit one," recounts Julie Beck in the Atlantic.

Then texting and email came along. These mediums offer fewer options to express nuances of feeling than phone or face-to-face communication, so people started reaching for the exclamation points. As David Shipley and Will Schwalbe note in their book "Send," "The exclamation point is a lazy but effective way to combat email's essential lack of tone."

That's how the craze for exclamation points, all caps, and emojis got started. But the trouble isn't only the fact that, soon enough, those of us who once would have once been horrified to send messages littered with exclamation points succumbed to the pressure to sprinkle our missives with enthusiastic punctuation. No, it's worse than that.

Punctuation, it turns out, is like cocaine. You develop a tolerance for it. And where one exclamation point once worked to convey warmth and sincerity, now you need three to accomplish the same goal (really: that's what one informal Twitter survey from a linguist found).

And that's how we got to a world where we're all sending work colleagues messages that look like they were written by an overexcited tween.

It's Very Stressful!!!!!

All of this is fascinating for language nerds (greetings, my people!). But are there any real-world effects of punctuation inflation beyond the appearance of the messages in our inboxes? In fact, yes. "Exclamation points are stressing people out," declared writer Katherine Bindley in the Wall Street Journal recently.

In the article, she offers a taxonomy of punctuation-related anxiety, from the peace of mind we lose worrying about how to balance professionalism and warmth in our work messages, to the anxiety of realizing your chosen punctuation may have come across as colder than intended, to the worry that you may be in trouble when an exclamation-free message arrives.

So is there any way out of the punctuation uncertainty? Probably not, say the experts. We're not giving up text-based communication anytime soon, and difficulties conveying tone are inherent to these forms of communication. The best you can probably hope for is to understand you're not a weirdo — this sort of anxiety isn't just understandable; it's also very common.

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Navigate the minefields of email with "Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better" by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Jessica Stillman October 8, 2018

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