Why I'm Finally Renouncing Exclamation Points
Amy Writes Words #24
Hello it’s me, Amy Newell, engineering leader/mental health advocate/boot fanatic, with another good-enough newsletter issue for you.
This issue has been sitting around in various states of readiness for literally months now. Editing it has felt just like the very first wisdom tooth I had to get extracted. The tooth wouldn’t come out, and the dentist was grappling with it for far too long a time, and I was not under anesthesia, and there were all these awful crunching noises as the tooth started shattering under the pressure of the pliers, so at the end of the extraction I was traumatized and very bloody and the wisdom tooth was in pieces.
So, I dunno, this wisdom tooth might also have ended up in pieces, you’ll have to decide, but I got no more energy to give to it, so here you go.
But first, a word from our sponsor: I recently gave a talk at Rubyconf on Debugging Product Teams. The talk is not available to the public yet, but you can check out the slides here.
If you want to learn more about debugging product teams, sign up to be notified when the talk is public and also about my upcoming course on the subject.
Finally, it’s the most wonderful time of the year (or something) and why not give all your favorite angry mom techies a gift subscription to Amy Writes Words, and a lil subscription for yourself too. Your support means a lot to me and will help ensure that I can keep writing these newsletters every week instead of spending 80% of my waking hours in Zoom and the other 20% putting out various teenager-related fires.
Okay, on to today’s topic.
Today I am formally renouncing my use of exclamation points.1
This is a big deal, because I have insisted for years that I use so many exclamation points because I am just so damn excited about everything, and not because I’ve been socialized by the patriarchy to use them so that when I ask for things or tell people about things I seem less threatening, as described below:
To be fair to me, I am in fact excitable.
Here's a classic photo of me being incredibly excited, like, so excited you would think I had just won the lottery or a date with Kate McKinnon where she’s dressed up as her character from Ghostbusters, or free mental healthcare for life, or the opportunity to be a Jeffrey Campbell Shoes brand ambassador2:
In fact what I have won in this photo from early 2019 is a trip to The Tasting Counter, which, while certainly a great restaurant, is something I could have just bought for myself if I really wanted it. Doesn’t matter. I was really excited. It’s the exact same expression that is on my face in a photograph from my wedding in which Max and I are walking back down the aisle after having wedded, but like, it makes sense to be that excited about getting married.
Anyway so yes, I do get excited.
And yes, sometimes it makes sense to use exclamation points to express excitement, WHICH I WILL CONTINUE TO DO! Also to express emphasis! Shock! And warnings!
And yes, I have been insisting for years that my use of exclamation points is in fact the exact opposite of the usual understanding of women’s use of exclamation points, that it is in fact a flex:
A few months ago Max asked me to edit a draft email he was sending to our condo association about some window repairs that we needed to get done. He’d written a straightforward email explaining the needed repairs, the quote from the contractors, and the cost breakdown per condo unit. Not an exclamation point to be found, which made sense, because if there are people in the world who get excited about managing and paying for window repairs, I do not know who they are but they are not Max and they are not me and they are not any of the other people we live in the building with.
“Hi folks! Hope everyone's enjoying their summers!” I inserted at the front of the email, to get things off to a cheerful and non-confrontational start before we got into the part where people will owe money.
I pride myself on my authenticity and yet there I was being inauthentically chipper and it wasn’t even MY EMAIL. I went in and girl-ified someone else’s email.
I started remembering all the emails, both in work and in life, that I’d peppered with exclamation points and all-caps and “I’m just really fucking hyper” energy and I started wondering if perhaps I hadn’t maybe deluded myself a tiny, tiny little bit about why I use so many exclamation points. Like maybe every single one wasn’t completely authentic.
This upset me. Authenticity is one of my core values. How can I claim to value authenticity and in fact give a very good impression of being completely authentic and yet use even one exclamation point that is not completely heartfelt?
I could go down a terrible rabbit hole at this point, hating on myself, but I won’t. There’s actually a perfectly reasonable way to think about how I can value authenticity and also I nevertheless do not have to consider myself a total fraud just because I’ve had this realization about some of my exclamation points.
Fundamentally, that question I asked myself “how can I claim to and yet?” is not legitimate. It’s the rhetorical method of a teenaged bully. Its aim is to catch someone out, to accuse them of fraudulence and hypocrisy, to call them a phony, like Holden Caulfield would. It would be a kind of self-harm to bludgeon myself with the question, a kind of self-harm I am also trying to renounce, along with exclamation points.
I can value authenticity and also make strategic choices about how I communicate. That doesn’t make me a hypocrite, it makes me a human.
Sometimes, however, we believe we are acting authentically and later we realize that some of our choices were unconsciously inauthentic because we unconsciously understood the risk of authenticity in that moment.
I believed in my exclamation points. I defended them. But they were also part of an overall and almost entirely unconscious strategy of softening the blow of my assertions, opinions, and directives, of stripping my persona and communication style of anything that might look like an overt display of dominance.
Why? I mean, we know why:
To the extent that I have had to get things done, convey information, or disagree in the course of my career, I have had to squelch overt dominance behaviors, and every ‘your personality at work’ test that I have taken has suggested that I have been doing that, that each particular workplace I have been in has required me to be less dominant than comes ‘naturally’ to me.
And every time in my career that I have failed to do that effectively, that I have left off the exclamation points, and the hedges, and the circumlocutions and the perhapses and the maybes and the I’m-not-sure-buts, I have paid a price.
When I have stated the facts as I saw them, plainly, when I have disagreed directly and without apology, when I have offered feedback to anyone at work in any but the most time-consuming, gentlest way possible, when I have advocated for myself — it has cost me. Sometimes it has cost me quite a bit, just like all the research says. I have been punished for it.
Do I mean punished directly, or even deliberately? For the most part, no.3 I mean something subtler.
I mean that when I have had to assert myself directly — often because my usual communication strategies were failing me and the issue at hand was one that I couldn’t simply give up on — the result has typically been that I have lost leverage.
Maybe I got the thing I was asserting myself to get, and maybe I didn’t, but either way I paid a price. I appeared less likable, more combative, angrier, and less competent. Just like all the research says.
White men largely do not pay that price, and women of color pay a much higher one.
Look, I’m probably paying a price right now, writing directly and without apology about these things. I know it makes me less employable. Who wants to hire such an angry, abrasive woman?
So why am I writing about it? I don’t have to pick this battle, I can just keep on using exclamation points even when I’m not excited, keep on hedging. I can stop deluding myself and just accept that my status as a woman in a male-dominated world means that I must strategically police my own words and my tone not simply because, as I wrote a while back, words matter and we should be careful with them, but because if I don’t do so I will pay for it.
But the truth is that I’ll probably pay either way, won’t I?
This is why every “boss edit” or “lean in” piece of advice about how women should communicate in the workplace is so ultimately disempowering.
Almost all of that advice places all the burden on individual women to change their behavior (often in contradictory ways). And, it places no such burden on men. It also fails to acknowledge, much less help women think through, the potentially negative impact of actually taking that advice.
To exhort women to speak directly but fail to acknowledge the potential costs to them personally is disingenuous. It erases the systemic reality of sexism and misogyny which means that no matter what individual women do, women overall will continue to lose unless we are collectively able to move past these tired rules aimed at individuals, and instead to work in solidarity with one another to address the systemic problems.
Look, I’m tired of obsessing about my exclamation points. I want to simply state the facts plainly, as I see them. I want to disagree directly. I want to advocate strongly for myself and also for other people. And I want you to get to see me do it, to see what it looks like.
And then I want us together to work toward a future where sometimes we use exclamation points and sometimes we don’t, and sometimes they’re strategic and sometimes they’re not, but we don’t have to fucking talk about them all the time.
We get to talk about more important things.
Tech needs more justice, not more copy-editing.
I do not offer this essay as an example of what to do to get ahead in your career as a woman in tech. It probably isn’t. That’s because I’m not trying to get ahead in my career.
I’m trying to offer up a space where people can see what it looks like when a woman in tech simply states the facts plainly, as she sees them. I know it’s not the only space (thank god!), it’s not the biggest space, and it’s not the most important space. But I also know that every space matters. My words matter. Yours do too.
If you are trying to get ahead in your own career, it may well make sense for you to keep doing some or all of the things you’re likely doing already (possibly even unconsciously, believing some of them to be just how you are) to blunt the negative impact of your ambition and your competence on your ability to exert leverage. You might want to stop deluding yourself (if you do) as to why you choose the words you do, but you may well have good reasons to choose them.
You may well need the leverage.
Well, maybe? I guess I’m not really sure, what do you think? I’m super-excited about the stuff I’m doing right now, of course! Like, really excited! But if I decide I just really miss leading teams (or employer-sponsored health insurance), well, then I’ll be super-excited about leading a team for you, and I swear I can squelch down my dominance again!
I have a lot of experience with that.
Subscriptions, updates, other projects, etc:
If you liked reading this pulverized wisdom tooth of an essay, why not share it? If you hate it, well, I’m cool if you hate-share it too. I need the publicity.
If you like the newsletter why not subscribe, and if you really want me to keep writing it, why not pay for your subscription?
$5/month or $50/year or $150/year if you think I’m actually super great and have the money to spare.
Paying subscribers will get subscriber-only discussion threads and probably some subscriber-only posts, but mainly you get the joy of supporting my work.
You can start a new subscription or upgrade your subscription to pay me here:
Or, maybe you want to give gift subscriptions to some other techies. Like to all your angry burnt-out techie mom friends, so that they get to read my stuff and I get more money to have the time to write it. It’s a gift all around.
I gave a talk at Rubyconf 2021, on debugging product teams. If this sounds interesting and useful, well, good news: I’m trying my hand at making courses and I’m going to be turning this talk into a whole course. Sign up here to be notified about it.
Holidays, mostly. But stay tuned, I’m thinking about some more cool ideas for educational content for engineering managers.
Engineering Career Coaching:
Wondering what the next step in your career should be? New tech lead or manager? Complicated work stuff you don’t know how to resolve? Just want to get overall more effective at work? Need to talk about your exclamation points? I offer bracingly-realistic, always-actionable, strengths-focused and individually-tailored engineering career and leadership coaching; check out this info or email me and ask about it.
I am also still offering my free office hours for women and non-binary engineers, 12-2pm EST every Thursday. Sign up here and please share with folks you think could benefit.
Reminder that I started another newsletter: “Woe: Mental Health Tips You'll Hate From The Saddest Woman In the World” and you can subscribe here: https://buttondown.email/woe It’s a weekly on Wednesdays short newsletter I’ll be offering at least through the end of the year. It’s also sometimes an advice column so if you have a question you’d like answered in Woe then hit me up!
Also, 50,000 selfies later, I now do portrait photography and modeling. Get in touch if you’re in the Boston area and you want a portrait or you need a model.
Talk to me!
I love to hear from my readers so you can always smash that reply button and let me know what you’re thinking.
Actually what I’m renouncing is the idea that all my exclamation points are genuine, but we’ll get to that part.
alt-text for this photo is a bunch of people one of whom is holding a very large trophy and a woman in the middle with her mouth so wide open it looks like she has detached her jaw like a snake can, and with her hands flung up around her face in excitement. That woman is me.
don’t miss that “for the most part” though. In fact yes, I have sometimes been punished directly and intentionally for saying truthful things to people with more power than me.