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3 July 2017updated 04 Jul 2017 12:12pm

“Sorry for bothering you!”: the emotional labour of female emails

In emails, women use exclamation marks more than men. Why?

By Amelia Tait

When Jess* started a “really prestigious” new job in her thirties, she knew within a matter of weeks that she and her boss wouldn’t get on. She felt micro-managed and frustrated, while he was often passive aggressive about her work. After a while, it came to a head in a meeting.

“The issue of my tone in emails came up,” says Jess. “He said that I came across as aggressive. So I started adding apologetic phrases when asking for things and using exclamation points to make it all sound a bit friendlier.”

Since then, Jess hasn’t been able to stop adding “unnecessary” exclamation marks to her emails. “I do wonder if I’d care so much about coming across as a friendly person via email if I wasn’t a woman or if it would have ever been an issue.”

In emails, women use exclamation marks significantly more often than men. Though initially academics assumed women were just more excitable (we really do hope you’re well! we truly can’t wait for your report on Q2’s earnings and dividends!), a 2006 study discovered that, in fact, women use more exclamation marks in order to seem friendly. Sometimes, we do it of our own accord. Other times – like Jess – we are forced to.

Diana* is a young professional who recently sent an email to a male colleague querying a mistake he had made. “The email was dashed off quickly and was straight to the point, but in my eyes – and five or six people I asked to read it afterwards – it wasn’t rude,” she says. Her colleague sent Diana a terse response and then forwarded their exchange on to another co-worker, accidentally CC’ing Diana into his message in the process. In it, he called her “snide”.

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“I’m pretty sure of two things. First, if I’d couched it with lots of ‘so sorry to bother you’s and ‘I may  be wrong!’s, he wouldn’t have been so angry and defensive that I had questioned him. Second, if a male colleague had sent exactly what I sent, he would have had a lot more respect for it.”

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In 1983, the sociologist Arlie Hochschild first defined the term “emotional labour”. As opposed to the physical and mental work we do – and are paid for – in our jobs, emotional labour is extra. It is the process of managing your feelings, and the expression of these feelings, in order to do your job. Exclamation marks, and the other ways we express our emotions in emails, can be a form of emotional labour for men and women. 

Deborah Tannen is a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of You’re The Only One I Can Tell: Inside The Language Of Women’s Friendships. She says women tend to use a range of different features in online communication, from !!! to CAPITAL LETTERS, to repeeeating lots of lettttersss as we type.

“All these add a sense of excitement and enthusiasm to what the typed words mean on their own,” she says. Tannen coined the term “enthusiasm constraint” – meaning that without a certain degree of enthusiasm present (!!!), we immediately assume a person is unenthusiastic or unhappy. If you texted your friend “Fancy dinner?” and they replied “Sure.”, you might be offended.

Yet Tannen says emotional constraint affects women more than men. “These expectations for written communication are parallel to what has been observed in girls’ and women’s spoken communication,” she explains. “Our intonation is more marked – goes up and down in more extreme ways; our facial expressions are more marked – our smiles are broader, we smile more; and we express more enthusiasm – ‘I’m SO glad; I’m SO sorry’.”

Tannen says the reasons we do this are cultural. In a study, she found that Greek men and women expected a certain level of enthusiasm from conversations, or they interpreted the speaker to be insincere. In the same study, Americans found Greeks to be histrionic when using their expected level of enthusiasm.

It seems, then, that we expect exclamation marks (i.e. friendliness) from women, and women add exclamation marks to live up to this expectation and emulate other women. That’s not to say, of course, that men don’t pepper their emails with !!s, or certain women can’t stand the sight of them. Chris Owen is a 38-year-old PR director who uses exclamation marks to “soften” his emails and seem less abrupt. Juliet Shaw is a 45-year-old journalist who feels exclamation marks undermine an email. “I got a business email yesterday full of exclamation marks and with three kisses on it. I immediately formed a negative opinion of the sender,” she says.

And it’s true that while exclamation marks might be (subconsciously) expected from women, many receivers view them as unprofessional. James Dempsey is a 31-year-old database administrator who only uses exclamation marks for personal, not professional emails. “They should never be used in a formal email, an email with many recipients or if you expect that email to be sent on to anyone else. When I see them I cringe,” he says.

Can women win? Without exclamations, they might seem rude – with them, they may seem unprofessional. Frances Robinson is a 35-year-old freelance journalist and event moderator who finds herself “guilty” of overusing exclamation marks, and frequently goes through her emails to remove all but one or two.

“If you’re asking the recipient to do something, exclamation marks somehow make things seem more friendly,” she says. “I do a lot of work moderating events and you want to convey to the client that it will be a good, lively discussion, not just a series of boring presentations – that means some more exclamation marks!” She now uses exclamation marks just at the start (“like bursting through the door”) and end (“like a little wave”) of her emails.

“I realised they were just making me sound unprofessional, like a breathless valley girl instead of a capable, confident woman with a decade’s experience in journalism,” she says.  

At present, there’s no easy solution. Women with gender neutral names or email addresses are often the real winners, as by default they are often assumed to be male. Perhaps the solution is for women to use exclamation marks with each other, and not with men. Or, vice versa. Progress is likely to be slow – but if behaviours change, attitudes might too.

Anyway, that’s just what I think! No worries if I’m wrong! I do hope you’re well!

*Names have been changed