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Can I use exclamation marks in my work emails?

The short answer is no.

There are exceptions, such as when your colleague announces a promotion in which case you need to reply with “Congratulations!” and not “Congratulations”. But, on the whole, emails read better without them.

The more interesting question is why we want to use them in the first place.

Here the answer is more nuanced.

If you think about it, every email has a dual function. The first function is the Desired Action. It could be the return of a completed form, updating team members on developments, arranging a meeting, making a sale, or any other answer to the question: What do I want to happen as a result of this email?

The second function of work emails is the Desired Relationship. You want to establish or support the appropriate connection between you and the recipient of your email. The formality of your workplace is a relevant factor here and so work connections will differ if you work in an established, conservative corporate, or a disruptive start-up. But, regardless of the level of formality, you probably want to come across as any combination of these words: competent, reliable, professional, friendly. Right?

This is a question of tone.

Tone is the perceived feelings behind our words. If your readers think that you sound enthusiastic/pleasant/upbeat, bored/boring/unconcerned or grumpy/angry/aggressive, they are reading the tone of your email.

This is what drives us to use exclamation marks: we want to come across as positive and friendly.

But – while in short answers, exclamation marks change a phrase from bitter or sarcastic to genuine (Amazing. versus Amazing! for instance) – everywhere else, exclamation marks are simply emphasis. Using them in work emails makes you seem over-enthusiastic, perhaps a bit shouty.

Rather than falling prey to generic over-enthusiasm, consider you words more carefully.

Here are four pointers to help you carry your tone with more sophistication:

  1. Use exclamation marks when you congratulate others, especially if your email is a short reply:

Well done! not Well done.

Brilliant! not Brilliant.

  1. Include an icebreaker after your greeting:

Hi Siphokazi,

I trust that your holiday was excellent – welcome back!

Dear Ms La Grange,

I hope you’re well.

Hi team,

Thank you for the excellent meeting last week.

Dear Jeffrey,

Thank you for your enquiry.

  1. Be positive:

Look at the difference between these two sentences:

1. The funds will not be available until February.

2. The funds will be available in February.

Is there a difference in meaning? No.

Is there a difference in tone? Actually, yes. Sentence A reads as a limitation. Sentence B reads as an opportunity.

Overusing words such as I don’t have time, waste, fail, impossible, etc., create a negative impression on your reader.

Enclosing your messages in positive phrases – opportunity, it’s a pleasure, together, etc. – goes a long way in maintaining and improving your relationships.

  1. Avoid generic emphasis:

If you get into the habit of using words well it will become easier to resist peppering everything you communicate with the excess of emphasis.

Good luck.

Oops… I mean, Good luck!

 

By Nicola Jurgens (Facilitator, Confident Communicator®)