Workplace rules used to be simple.
If you were in the office, you wore a suit and tie. If you were writing a memo, you kept it formal.
Today, social mores have changed, and the default setting from our clothes to how we communicate is often business casual.
Two recent studies suggest that the office is more like an Ultimate Fighting Championship bout than a dignified place to work:
- Marketing firm DDB found millennials would take credit for someone else’s work to get ahead fives times as often as Baby Boomers.
- Job placement service RiseSmart reports 16 percent of workers criticize employers online.
It seems we have entered an anything-goes era in the workplace. Where are the rules? What’s appropriate?
If you want to jump on email and bash your boss, go ahead, but before you click “send,” I have one request: Cut back on the exclamation points.
Yes, we glide from Gmail to Twitter to Gchat and the messages muddle together, but work email should remain a cut above. Too many exclamation points imply you’re young and inexperienced (like this). Right or wrong, they make people question your seriousness.
I created the guide below to outline when it is appropriate to employ exclamation points in work emails. I’m not so rigid and old school to suggest that they disappear altogether. As in all things, moderation is key.
1. Hello and goodbye
Let’s start where all emails begin: the introduction. Plenty of people open a work email with:
They also end with:
Have a great day!
Exclamation points at the beginning and end. No big deal.
The other half of the population goes with:
And for the finish:
Have a great day.
Which one is right? They both are. Intros and outros are just that-the entrance and exit of the conversation. They are only pleasantries so, yes, you can come and go with an energetic tone (!) or something more subdued. Either way, it’s not a distraction to the reader.
2. Let the other person set the tone
Now we depart the safe harbor of the email introduction (where the exclamation point is up to you) and enter the treacherous unknown: the body of our message. Here’s where exclamation points are a far riskier game.
If you already led with:
Then you might think it’s fine to keep on rolling with the excited streak:
I want to send an email to catch everyone up on the project since we have a lot going on! Please respond that you saw this email so I know you’re in the loop!
Now the reader thinks: “Yeesh, calm down over there. It’s Monday morning, and I haven’t even finished my coffee.”
So let’s make a new plan. Rather than start off strong with exclamation points, let other people make the first move and match their emotion. That way, you’re always in line with how they want to exchange messages.
If the person writes back:
Thanks so much for the note!
Then you say:
If the person goes with:
Thanks so much for the note.
Then you reply:
When you defer to other people, you’re always right. If they want to drop exclamation points here and there, so do you. If they prefer to keep it lower key, respond in the same way.
3. Double exclamation points
In parts I and II, I make the case that you can go either way with exclamation points. In part III, the tune changes.
Double exclamation points have no place in a work email. I make no apologies for that rule.
There’s a difference between energetic and overkill, and it happens somewhere between ! and !!
If you’re on Gchat or talking to a friend through Gmail, go nuts!!!
When it comes to work, though, the double exclamation point is double trouble. Remember, you’re a working professional. Business is business. Money is money.
You need people to feel comfortable using you or you firm. If you’re young and dropping !! everywhere, it could be seen as a red flag.
4. When an exclamation point is necessary
You might be like my dad and oppose exclamation points in all work-related situations. Maybe it’s generational and millennials find online communication casual and natural.
Anyway, part IV is where you “learn the rules and break them.” That’s because there are situations where an exclamation point matters even if you don’t like to use them.
I just want to tell you I landed the promotion so now I’m VP of development for the entire east coast. Thought you’d like to know the good news!
That’s a pretty big deal, right? You can’t come back with:
That’s great news. Congrats.
Your answer does not match the person’s emotion-at all. No, the moment deserves:
That’s great news! Congrats!
If you want the person to know you’re excited, then you need an exclamation point. Plus, if the person wrote the big news email to a group and everyone else has responded with:
There’s no way you could drop in with:
Not only do you appear unenthusiastic, but it kind of sounds like you aren’t happy for the person and are sending good wishes through gritted teeth.
Some moments require you to fall in line.
5. Trust your instincts
When you finish composing an email, look over your work. How many exclamation points have you used?
If it “feels” like you overdid it, then you overdid it. Even if you’re only trying to keep pace with the other person’s ! use.
No matter what, you never want to appear less professional than the person on the other end.
You want to be—What’s the word? Ah, yes—appropriate.
How do you handle exclamation points in work emails? Please share your approach in the comments section.
Danny Rubin is the author of “Wait, How Do I Write This Email?,” a collection of 100+ templates for networking, the job search and LinkedIn. Visit his blog, News To Live By, where a version of this article originally appeared. Follow him on Twitter @DannyHRubin.