I used to help my mom with her Facebook account. Our weekly tutorials were fraught, ending in either frustration ("No, Lydia, for the last time, you may not poke your father") or metaphysical musings. ("But what, really, is a wall?") One particular point of contention was the use of exclamation points. I found them "festive" and "sparkly"; my mother countered with "abrasive" and "indulgent." Every caption or status I drafted was rejected if it contained a slammer. I vowed that when I grew up and moved to a place far away, I would use all the exclamation points I wanted.
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Well, the real world proved hostile to my youthful enthusiasms. I realized my mother was not alone in her regime: Journalists and grammarians everywhere preach a wary sermon on the subject of exclamation points. If anything, the punctuation mark has only fallen in favor. "Digital communication is undergoing exclamation-point inflation," writes The Atlantic 's Julie Beck. Perhaps that's why we now need six—six!!!!!!—to have the same effect as one. Then there's the question of gender. Plings, we're told, make us women sound friendly but also dumb (#classic). "Burn your bra, burn your keyboard," I chanted, suddenly deeply moved. "Free yourself from the shackles of prescribed punctuation."
In the end, Mother got it her way: In a new-year, new-me effort to conserve my emotional energy, I decided to scrub my correspondence of punctuational loudness, to go on what I called a deep exclamation point cleanse. The Goop de grammar. My goal was one month of zero bangs on email, text, social media, Slack, dating apps, letters (yes, letters ), notes to my roommates—everything.
It started well enough. The first day, I awoke feeling superior—morally, intellectually, spiritually. I no longer relied on a pedestrian symbol to express excitement or mask anxiety. When the first text rolled in, a thank you for a dinner party I hosted the night before, it was no sweat. "Oooooo are you kidding????" I replied. "You were a DELIGHT." If I couldn't have exclamation points, I would have question marks. AND I WOULD YELL.
As texts from other guests came, I gave them the same treatment. This was kids' stuff. Then, my first bomb arrived. A woman who had recently asked for my number, which I supplied, asked me out on a date. Not only did I need to decline the invitation, but also I wanted to tell her why : I'm straight. These were treacherous waters to wade through as a conflict-averse millennial, and now I was rendered defenseless without my diffusive exclamation point.
I stated the truth.
Ambiguous winky face aside, I was amazed. Never in my years of overthinking textual relations had I ever dreamt that unadorned directness would get me the result I wanted. "Maybe there's something to this," I thought. My cleanse would accomplish what so much Jungian therapy had not: the unification of my fractured psyche.
As the day wore on, my main problem was speed. Crafting a response took twice as long as it used to. My untrained fingers ached for that seductive mark while my "rational" brain shooed them away. Then I remembered I had a secret weapon, an ace up my sleeve that was made exactly for diluting potentially fraught conversations with some color and sparkle: emojis . "EVERYONE WILL GET A PURPLE HEART," I cried.
It didn't end at purple hearts. Soon my frequently used emoji collection resembled that of a person who split her time between a kindergarten classroom and a rave in Ibiza: brilliant blue butterflies, dancing women in flouncy red dresses, teeny glasses of red wine I never intended on consuming, hands that clapped and high-fived and waved. Oh, and the smiley faces. Faces with Cheshire Cat grins, faces with flaming red cheeks, faces with tiny grabby hands popping out of their necks. No floating emotive head left unturned, each carefully parceled in ones or twos so they'd appear bigger on iMessage.
By nighttime, though, I was somewhat off my emoji roll as I dashed from bus to home to evening plans. People were picking up that something was different, my effusive iBanter inexplicably subdued. On my way to meet for dinner, my friend texted:
My dear friend unravelled right before my eyes, all thanks to my dumb experiment in self-preservation. Without exclamation, I lost warmth and tonality. No one knew what I meant anymore. I found it no coincidence when, a few days later, my brother told me to try being "more open to the universe."
At work, I was protected under the guise of professionalism . What sounded terse to me could be easily translated as direct communication. Email became my linguistic safe haven, the only place I didn't worry whether people would infer meaning. It's not like anyone's on email to make friends.
The next day in the office, I encountered another difficulty: cross-platform consistency. Notifications from Slack sirens and Gchat ghouls blared, each one beckoning me to fail. But there were some benefits. Typing on a computer instead of a teeny cellular screen gave me the room to spread out. I still felt like I was being mean, but now my hostility was less spatially confined. At work, I was also protected under the guise of professionalism . What sounded terse to me could be easily translated as direct communication. Email became my linguistic safe haven, the only place I didn't worry whether people would infer meaning. It's not like anyone's on email to make friends.
Back in my social world, I was floundering. I started using extra vowels and em-dashes to add some architecture to my sentences. I was quickly informed that nothing incites fear more than a sentence that trails off, and that my attempt at introducing a modern ellipsis to the iMessage ecosystem (I thought maybe using only two dots would provide an urban feel ) just pissed everyone off.
Former friends turned-hecklers doubted my integrity. "Oh, you're still doing that?" they said. "Lol bet you almost used one right there." My better angels restrained from using exclamation points when texting with me or would place them (safely) inside parentheses. A few even tried to join me, but their sober stints invariably ended when they sniffed something more exciting, leaving me trudging alone into sanctimonious platitudes.
About three weeks in, I wanted affirmation. Did my new style make me sound smarter? Better? More mature? I couldn't post this life update on Instagram like someone might a new haircut, assessing the value of a decision based on metered likes. I asked my long-distance best friend, with whom I text nearly every day, how she perceived the change.
Accusations aside, this was positive feedback. I had reached a level of blasé intimacy that I previously thought was reserved for men in their 20s. But internally, I couldn't shake the feeling that I had become a shadow of my former self. I looked at myself in the mirror—did I look … older? Where did the joie de vivre go, the twinkle in my eye? I used to be fun to talk to; people even said I had texting game. Notably, the few times I accidentally let an exclamation point slide (which, let me tell you, had the shock factor of spilling coffee all over the really nice couch at a new friend's house) were in moments of sincere expression: congratulating a childhood friend on her promotion, making a valentine for my dear old dad, Slacking my boss that something was actually OK. Stripping these moments of personality seemed cruel, barring me from participation in a new social economy where emojis are the accepted currency, where GIFs rain down like dollar bills.
"Will you continue?" the people asked, as my month finally came to a close. I knew I had enjoyed certain aspects—the power trip was amazing, and adopting a cohesive language at work made me more efficient. I thought I would simply reintegrate into exclaiming society, while being perhaps more sparing and deliberate in my usage this time. But set free from my cleanse, exclamation points still feel off-limits. I can't bring myself to press the damn key, even now.
My writing doesn't want it anymore. I can still do all the other things—feel, emote, express, describe. Maybe I've lost the taste. Maybe my mother, and the world, ruined me. Or maybe I just finally got my point across.
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