washingtonpost.com
Say It With Screamers!!!!!
Does your e-mail reveal more than you know?

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, December 24, 2006

AMY SAYS SHE JUST HATES IT WHEN PEOPLE WRITE IN ALL CAPS, while Peter points out that a few CHOICE words set in caps can REALLY make a statement.

We're at a family holiday gathering, having eggs for breakfast, and we're either nostalgic for work, or feeling out of sorts without work, or just finding the subject a welcome one, a stress-free topic that doesn't involve childhood memories and whether so-and-so always got the most attention and why so-and-so always got blamed for everything.

Office e-mail. We work in different fields, but we know the nuances of the same digital lingo. We are part of the network of nobodys pioneering the rules and expectations of the new form of communication. "I would like to address the issue of the exclamation point!" I say. "And did you hear how I said that? Did you HEAR the exclamation point at the end of that statement?"

Nods go around the room.

"So, why am I not permitted to use an exclamation point in an e-mail?"

"Not permitted?" Carl asks. "You have e-mail rules at your university?"

Of course not. But there are certain sins that are not committed by scholars, and an exclamation point in an e-mail is one of them. It's a symbol that seems to say: I am perhaps way overly extremely enthusiastic about something I don't quite know how to express succinctly using mere words. And, therefore: stupid.

"That is true," Amy says. "An exclamation point is more something you would only use for family."

That is so true! There is no place for the exclamation point in business communication! This has been bothering me for some time. Or maybe I'm just in the mood for rebellion?

Carl interrupts. "Does anyone have any opinions on font styles?"

Eyebrows up! We find that we all have font opinions, noting how weird it is to actually vocalize the word "font," which would seem to be reserved only for viewing on a tool bar.

"Times New Roman 12 or 10," Peter says. "Courier or Arial. Black or blue."

We're all nodding. We understand implicitly. Acceptable fonts are those to which your e-mail client defaults; anything else is code for: "I have a heck of a lot of extra time on my hands, so I'm gonna write to you in purple Berling Antiqua, which you may or may not be able to read."

"Old people and children," I point out, "get a free pass on fancy fonts."

"And family," Amy says.

"Right," I say. Amy and I are on the same page here. My husband is staring at me. He disagrees?

"Why do you use so many ellipses?" he asks, as if finally

getting the nerve to confront me on this matter.

I do?

"Yeah, you'll write to tell me about the kids having soccer practice, and then you'll end with a whole bunch of periods."

"I have sort of noticed that," Amy says. "What's that about?"

I make the case that my ellipses probably just indicate that I have a lot more to say but I'm in a hurry to move on, or I'm just not quite READY for CLOSURE, or, um, well, I don't have any other plausible explanation . . . "WHO KNEW THAT PUNCTUATION MARKS COULD PLAY SUCH A VITAL ROLE IN OUR LIVES?!?!"

We laugh. We are having a great time. We refill our orange juices, and some of us go for the mimosas. We debate the use of "LOL" to connote laughter in an e-mail, versus, simply, "HA!" I find that I am anti-LOL because using it means that I've crossed over to the other side, to LIVING inside e-mail instead of USING e-mail to live. "Does that make sense?" I ask.

"Sort of like if I say 'LOL' right now, instead of just laughing out loud, I've lost my humanity," my husband says.

"Right!" We are discovering so much about ourselves. We never even knew we had these stances until now. How invigorating to give voice to private choices and to learn that you're not alone. We find that we have all resisted the trend to use emoticons in our communications, and some of us go into high-fives over that common conviction.

"It's enough to make a person want to use an exclamation point!" I say, determined to revive the poor thing. I tell them that I think the exclamation point is becoming a class issue, a way of separating. Where I work, the office staff uses them all the time in their communications to the faculty, as in: "Hi! Just wanted to remind you of the departmental meeting next Tuesday at 9:30!" But the faculty wouldn't be caught dead sounding so perky. As in: "Thank you. I'll be there."

Cranky-pants! I don't want to be part of the cranky-pants side. Recently, I've been using exclamation points all over the place! It's my own private rebellion! I've been writing e-mails about seminars in pedagogy and sounding just like this! It's fun! It adds a little AIR and LIGHTNESS into the dim halls of cranky-pants land! "Right?" I'm saying to my gathered family, and I raise my glass for a toast. "Long live the exclamation point!"

They look at me with furrowed brows. "Maybe after you get tenure," my husband says, reminding me that we need the health insurance.

"Just keep the exclamation points for family," Amy says, generously. "That's what families are FOR."

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is post@jmlaskas.com.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company