(or How I learnt to stop wor­ry­ing and love the shriek­mark) In the gram­mat­i­cal good old days, ex­cla­ma­tion marks were re­served for emer­gen­cies. Now they lit­ter our texts, tweets and even – hor­rors – work emails. But is that a bad thing? Adam Dud­ding in­vesti

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - COVER STORY -

With­out even notic­ing, I have be­come a se­rial over-user of a piece of punc­tu­a­tion so dis­rep­utable that it’s known as the “screamer”.

Acou­ple of weeks, ago my Gmail ac­count sud­denly up­dated it­self. There were new fonts and colours, dif­fer­ently shaped check­boxes and some other point­less changes, but also some­thing quite creepy.

At the bot­tom of each in­com­ing email, I am now pre­sented with three lit­tle but­tons to click, each with a dif­fer­ent pre-cooked re­sponse that Google, in all its ar­ti­fi­cial wis­dom, reck­ons might re­flect my true feel­ings.

Here are few of the things Google has re­cently sug­gested I mean to say:

Like most mod­ern ills, the in­ter­net is to blame. First email, then so­cial me­dia, then ubiq­ui­tous smart­phones have spurred suc­ces­sive leaps in the vol­ume of high-speed, low-im­por­tance com­mu­ni­ca­tions we con­duct purely in text form.

We write work­place glob­als an­nounc­ing To­day Is Clear-Out-The-Fridge Fri­day! We re­ceive last-minute text re­quests from our part­ners for a bot­tle of milk and a loaf of Vo­gel’s just af­ter we’ve reached the su­per­mar­ket check­out. We tweet. We In­sta­gram. We en­gage in the ban­terised fore­play of app-based dat­ing. We do po­lite bat­tle with those in­fu­ri­at­ing vir­tual as­sis­tants that pop up when you go on­line to com­plain about a power bill. So much nat­ter­ing and chat­ter­ing that might once have been said out loud must now be typed.

Sprin­kle your mes­sages with non-ver­bal “tex­tisms”, the the­ory goes, and you’ll seem like a nicer per­son.

The prob­lem with tex­tual in­ter­ac­tions, though, is they lack the real-world nu­ances of fa­cial ex­pres­sion, hand­wav­ing, body-lan­guage and in­to­na­tion, and can seem strangely blunt. So we’ve col­lec­tively in­vented a new vo­cab­u­lary of tex­tual soft­en­ers: non-stan­dard punc­tu­a­tion and cap­i­tal­i­sa­tion, joc­u­lar mis­spellings such as “aaaaand”, or “weeeeeeeel­l­lll”, emoti­cons such as :-) or ; emo­jis like or .

Some­where along this jour­ney, the ex­cla­ma­tion mark de­vel­oped a cu­ri­ously spe­cific new func­tion: it’s the sign you put at the end of a sen­tence to in­di­cate that you’re not be­ing sar­cas­tic.

As on­line-lan­guage ex­pert Gretchen McCul­loch told The At­lantic, “the sin­gle ex­cla­ma­tion mark is be­ing used not as an in­ten­sity marker but as a sin­cer­ity marker”.

There’s more punc­tu­a­tion-re­lated science go­ing on than you might have imag­ined.

In 2016, an ex­per­i­ment run by psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor Celia Klin showed that if you put a full­stop at the end of a text mes­sage, the reader will in­ter­pret it as more neg­a­tive and less en­thu­si­as­tic than if it had been left un­punc­tu­ated.

A 2006 study, Gen­der and the Use of Ex­cla­ma­tion Points in Com­puter-Me­di­ated Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, dis­cussed the well-estab­lished fact that women use ex­cla­ma­tion marks more of­ten than men, but claimed that con­trary to ear­lier sex­ist as­sump­tions, this wasn’t be­cause women were more ex­citable than men. Rather, women were more eager than men to ap­pear agree­able. Sprin­kle your mes­sages with non-ver­bal “tex­tisms”, the the­ory goes, and you’ll seem like a nicer per­son.

That’s cer­tainly how it seems to my Stuff col­league Sinead Cor­co­ran, who writes a col­umn about her dat­ing ad­ven­tures.

Cor­co­ran says for a fe­male user of dat­ing apps, the big­gest fear is that she will come across as moany or neg­a­tive. And for some rea­son even the sim­plest of declar­a­tive sen­tences comes across all pas­sive-ag­gres­sive, un­less you soften it with some tex­tisms.

Con­sider the in­nocu­ous phrase “That sounds nice”. Read it cold, and it feels kind of sar­cas­tic. But throw a lit­tle dog’s dick on the end – “That sounds nice!” – and it mag­i­cally trans­forms into some­thing cheer­ful and non-sarky.

The point, says Cor­co­ran, is that you al­ways “want to come across as a fun care­free gal who’d be fun and care­free in real life”.

The tragedy for Cor­co­ran’s dates, of course, is that in re­al­ity, “I’m not fun or care­free. I have so many cares.”

Cor­co­ran would never be so crass as to use a dou­ble ex­cla­ma­tion mark – she is a pro­fes­sional writer, af­ter all – but she’s not above the oc­ca­sional gif. Noth­ing projects an up­beat at­ti­tude and a will­ing­ness to be flex­i­ble around dat­ing ar­range­ments like a quick copy-paste of a ½-se­cond loop of Steve Carell do­ing a naff wink.

Emo­jis serve a sim­i­lar func­tion, but tread care­fully, Cor­co­ran warns. Con­stant se­man­tic in­fla­tion means the ba­sic it­er­a­tions no longer cut it.

“There’s noth­ing more pass-agg than a plain smi­ley-face,” claims Cor­co­ran (she means one like this: ). In­stead, she al­ways reaches for this one , whose smirky/sexy vibe is much bet­ter.

Whether it’s ram­pant ex­cla­ma­tion marks, smi­ley faces or cheesy gifs, the idea is al­ways the same, says Cor­co­ran: sig­nalling how to­tally non-crazy you are.

“It’s all about soft­en­ing the mes­sage so you don’t look like a psy­cho.”

Out­side the shark-tank of on­line dat­ing, how­ever, Cor­co­ran drops the ex­cla­ma­tion marks al­most com­pletely. Her fe­male friends al­ready know and love her, warts and all, so when tex­ting them, “I don’t care if I sound like a bitch who won’t use ex­cla­ma­tion marks”.

So this is where we’ve got to. In a few short years we’ve moved from us­ing the oc­ca­sional

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