Last week, I did an experiment: I decided to stop using exclamation points and emoji. In an office that’s completely reliant on Slack, this was difficult.
I often felt anxious and rude. When my boss asked me to proof an article, I’d feel guilty for responding “ok” instead of “absolutely!” When my editor sent revisions, I’d worry that responding “thanks” (sans 👍) effectively translated to “Wow, you destroyed my work.” And when my friend texted me asking if I wanted to grab dinner, my reply—”sure”—prompted her to text back, “everything okay?”
Yet as I altered my communication style, I noticed that my colleagues did too—a phenomenon that linguists call “registering.”
“People instinctively register and change their styles depending upon who they’re communicating with and how that person speaks,” says Naomi S. Baron, a linguistics professor at American University. Conversing without punctuation to cushion our points seemed to level the tone of my discourse with colleagues, if only in my mind. My messages weren’t pandering to my teammates’ emotions, nor were theirs to mine. And so while the conversational style felt stark and dismissive to me at first, it soon felt honest and easy.
Strange as it may sound, dropping the 👍s from my workplace communication wasn’t just a relief—it was empowering.
From childhood, women are conditioned to smile and nod to ensure that others feel comfortable and confident. This dynamic translates in digital communication through emoji and exclamation points, as this hilarious video drives home. Enthusiastic punctuation marks and pictures are “the textual versions of body language,” says Jenny Davis, a social psychologist, professor at the Australian National University, and editor of the blog Cyborgology.
As Quartz has previously reported, women’s speech styles traditionally tend to be about “about making space for others’ expressions,” says Davis. And so “the love hearts and winky face emoji are [also] forms of deference and affection that show care for those with whom a person communicates.”
In this way, emoji and exclamation points are the emotional labor of digital communication. Like all emotional labor, providing comfort and support via texting can be rewarding and essential. If my manager gives me praise, responding “thank you!” shows my genuine enthusiasm and helps us maintain an amicable, respectful relationship. And if a friend sends plans to meet up, texting 👍 is an easy way to communicate excitement.
Yet as a woman, sustaining an upbeat digital tone in my workplace communication is draining. And it reinforces gender norms I’d rather move beyond. Using emoji and exclamation marks ought to be a choice—as it is for men—not an obligation.
As with all habits, it takes time, attention, and effort to change one’s style of digital communication. Within a few days, I inevitably found myself slipping back into 👍-speak. But this week, in honor of international emoji day (today), I’m re-committing to scrubbing 👍, and its substitutes (😊, 👌, “sure!” or “you got it!”) from my repertoire.
My colleagues may not notice. (Last week, none of them did.) And the experience is certainly uncomfortable. But linguistic power dynamics are real. Even the smallest changes can alter the way others view you, and more importantly, how you view yourself.