Exclamation Mask

I was going to follow up last week’s post with Part 2, but Real Life rudely interrupted my weekend and Saturday was a write-off for writing. I make no apologies: family is a bit more important than a blog post.

I recently read a blog post during the course of which it was mentioned that women shouldn’t feel the need to apologise for using exclamation points or emoticons in their typing. It was more of a side-comment and not really related to the meat of the post, but that line stuck in my head. Some studies have indicated that women use emotes and exclamation marks more than men, but why would anyone ever apologise for using them?

Emoticons are something I use frequently in casual text-based conversations. As someone with a number of friends who have varying levels of ASD (that’s austism spectrum disorders; in a nutshell, these involve difficulties with social communication) I know that conversational tone does not translate well in text. My own dry and somewhat deadpan humour particularly doesn’t project well, and so I tack “lol” and “;D” onto the ends of sentences so that people can recognise a joke (this creates problems when people interpret the emote as the actual sarcastic content, which is why I’m considering the adoption of “sarcastrophe” punctuation marks, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). As far as I’m concerned, emotes are for clarity of tone and mood, and it doesn’t seem — to me — to be particularly related to the fact that I happen to be female; many guys I know make extensive use of a variety of emotes as often as I do.

Now… exclamation points? That’s a different matter.

Use of exclamation points denotes cheerfulness or excitement beyond merely being pleased — note the difference in tone between “that was great.” and “that was great!”. This punctuation mark has a somewhat unfair reputation of overuse by the excessively silly (eg, “No way!!! Omg!!!”) and many people view its use as unprofessional. It’s also a tool that I’ve used to good effect in my professional interactions, because it is a highly nuanced tool for self-effacement.

My first full-time job was heavily customer-oriented: I was a cashier at one of the big Native American casinos in Connecticut. I was also too young to gamble, but it was legal for me to work in a gambling establishment. I quickly learned what the customers at such places expect to see from the employees: being behind a layer of bullet-proof glass and a countertop is like being one of those old fortune-telling robot machines. The customer expects to put a credit card in and get a pile of fibreglass chips in exchange, whilst the robot behind the glass smiles a painted smile and exchanges uninterested pleasantries.

Sod that. I’m serious: there’s nothing more painful than spending ten hours a day, five days a week, giving a smile you don’t feel to people who can tell just by the sound of your voice that you are bored, uninterested, and don’t really care about them. And yanno what, I do care about the customers. They may not always be worth the effort, but I do like people, and when I say, “have a nice day!” I actually hope it does brighten someone’s day.

One good thing bout a smile is that, even if it starts out fake, it does actually have a psychological effect on your mood. Gotta love it. So in that service industry, you coach yourself. You spend the hike from the clock-in desk to your day’s assignment running a mantra of, “I love my job, I love helping people, this is actually fun,” through your head, and it’s amazing how many people can convince themselves that they enjoy doing a job they actually despise, if they just change perspective a little. So by the time you get to the desk, run a count on your drawer, and take over for the outgoing shift, that smile is as real as a sunny day, even when the back of your head is chanting, “fml, man”. And more than that, a smile affects the tone of your voice; you can even hear when someone’s smiling over the phone.

“Hey! How’s it going?! Having fun today?!” Oh, interrobang, you lovely utility. Pop it on the end of your sentences and you sound almost disgustingly cheerful. Customers appreciate it, and the smile adds to the impression that, even if you don’t know this person and won’t remember their face after you go home for the night, you really do care about their experience at your place of employment. In its essence, the addition of an exclamation point to your query turns it from merely polite to subservient: the customer you are addressing has suddenly become the most important person in your world, and if there is anything you can do for them within the purview of your position, you will do your damnedest to get it done.

I’m not saying subservience is necessarily a good thing, but the illusion of it is a vital aspect of customer service.

Compare that to my more recent CS routine. In text-based customer support, the exclamation point brings an authority figure (the CS rep) down to the same social level as the customer. You’re still the judge and jury (and sometimes executioner in more extreme cases), but providing the illusion that, hey, you’re just another guy on the end of the line and you really do care about the customer’s problems goes a long way towards a good relationship with the person you’re attempting to assist. Phrasing and word choice have a lot to do with it, as well, but that first exclamation point tacked on at the end of an initial greeting immediately dispels the dispassionate nature of black and white text. The CS rep is still the authority, but through the use of a simple ASCII character they have swept that authority under a layer of compassion, extending a warm handshake instead of a sleepy-eyed expression of disinterest.

It’s a deception in the name of good interpersonal relations, and something of a willing (albeit temporary) personal sacrifice — just as a good customer service employee can honestly apologise and admit it openly if they’ve made an error, they can dispense with a little personal dignity for the sake of getting the job done. It’s not even limited to customer support: you see this in government employees and dignitaries all the time. While they may be of equal or even higher social standing to the person they’re addressing, they can put it aside for a moment in order to connect as people. It doesn’t require a lot of bowing or simpering; just a warm smile and a simple exclamation point in greeting.

And I’ve never been one to apologise for adding a smile onto my sentences ^_^

4 thoughts on “Exclamation Mask

  1. Of all types of punctuation misuse, I feel multiple punctuation marks, especially full stops should be apologized for. Laying out a statement like this… is very frustrating to read… and summons the urge within me… to punch the author through the monitor…

      1. Yep. Every punctuation mark has a proper name. Isn’t that typical of linguists? :p

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