A weird time in punctuation: navigating emoji and exclamation points

You’ve probably sent an emoji or two to your friends and family — they’re fun, silly, and they get the point across without words.

Maybe you campaigned for the dumpling and the taco to be immortalized in Unicode. You cringed with the masses when Apple rolled out their interpretation of a bagel (plain and dry).

But have you thought about emoji etiquette? Sure, you’re probably not sending your boss a bunch of eggplants and peaches. But new linguistic norms can confuse or offend.

And then there’s the less obvious stuff. The period is on its way out, for example. And exclamation points, or lack thereof, can sometimes cause unnecessary stress.

Which brings us to this point — the punctuation landscape has changed dramatically in recent years — in ways that would blow the minds of Strunk and White.


How do emoji effect language?

Some people have called emoji a language. That’s not necessarily an accurate interpretation.

There’s no actual grammar system like English, French, or Japanese. The flexibility they provide is their benefit and their downside.

People tend to apply their own method of making sense of emoji syntax. Those custom rules allow us to build a secret language of sorts.

Secret languages between friend groups, siblings, and of course the weird baby talk that happens with closely connected couples are all signs of insider group membership.

Emojis, too, can have that effect.

The other benefit is, emoji help us replace the cues found in face-to-face communications; reducing the ambiguity that comes with text-based messaging, be it email or text.

Ambiguity is driving us crazy


Between emails and texts, changing punctuation norms, and a library of emoji; reading between the lines has become a job all its own.

We came across a piece a while back highlighting this new norm: women are increasingly expected to add exclamation points to emails to demonstrate warmth. Use a period, and you risk coming off as cold or dismissive.

This use of punctuation marks has created some interesting communication problems. With face-to-face communications, we have access to all of these tiny cues that come together to give us context.

Remove the body language, and it can be impossible to tell if someone is in a bad mood or not. Frontiers in Psychology published a paper on mood detection in an ambiguous text. Researchers found that people were less likely to respond quickly to messages with an unclear mood attached.

Should you use emoji at work?

Like all personal exchanges, the relationship should be taken into account before you start deploying your favorite Unicode symbols.

A study from Social Psychological and Personality Science advised that people should refrain from using emoji in professional communications and the first time you message someone.

While the science is all over the place when it comes to how emoji affect your reputation at work, there are several that say using them in the workplace does not increase positive feelings.

Instead, they may give colleagues cause to assume you are less competent.

Because it’s not necessarily appropriate to use emoji in a professional setting, people tend to adopt a unique use of punctuation marks to convey sentiment in a medium devoid of obvious cues.

Think too many exclamation points, an extended ellipsis (thanks……..), or “what???!” Exerting force in writing is no longer limited to YELLING in all caps.

In some cases, those unnecessary exclamation points have taken on a sort of emotional labor — this article mentions a woman, Jess, whose manager called her out for her “aggressive” email tone.

Long story short, the solution was the exclamation point — a way to add excitement, enthusiasm, and friendliness to dry communication channels. They also soften emails and make them seem abrupt.

Why do we have to convey enthusiasm, anyway?

With friends, the solution is easy. Drop in an emoji for context, no big deal. At work, however, we’re probably stuck in feigned enthusiasm hell for a while.

On the one hand, if we normalize emojis as part of professional, intelligent communication, there are more options than choosing between three exclamations or four. On the other, emojis might then become the next frontier of text-based obligation.

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