It starts innocently enough:
Thanks so much for sending.
I’d love to set up a call for later this week!
Wow—that would be great!
But then we find ourselves writing lines like this:
I’m really excited to get started on this project!
We’re all adults here. So what’s going on? Why do so many of today’s business emails read like middle school mash notes? To be clear, I’m not in a position to judge; the examples above are drawn from my own outbox. I cringe when I read them—but I’m far from alone.
A sociologist friend of mine calls this tendency “affect inflation,” and assures me that it’s just as common in academia as it is in business: “I think, I’d be willing to meet with you. But I write, I’d be thrilled to meet with you!” Note the less-common noun form of “affect”: the external, observable manifestations of emotion. In psychological terms our affect is, quite literally, the face we show to the world.
So how did we get here? And why is my eye twitching like that?
Part of the problem is the tonal flatness of the medium—email and, to an even greater degree, texting. In these forms, the language of traditional business correspondence feels stilted, even pretentious. We try to replace it with clear, straightforward prose, to write like we speak. But without the social cues of voice and face, simple statements can come off as rude or abrupt. And so we slather on the icing and sprinkles, dispensing superlatives, piling up the exclamation points and smileys just to balance the scales.
We may be weak, but we’re also onto something. It turns out that, in texting at least, an ending period reads as less sincere than one with no punctuation at all. And (though it makes my shriveled editor’s heart tremble to report this) an exclamation point makes even statements such as “Fine!” read as more sincere.
Yes, the exclamation point is the new neutral, and the period conveys sarcasm. Or even aggression.
Shoot me now.
Note, too, that balancing all this in one’s ordinary business email is difficult enough for men. For women, who are held to far higher social standards for “niceness,” it’s like being Ginger Rogers, doing everything Fred Astaire does, but backwards and in heels.
So what to do?
Reader, I wish I knew.
For now, I hold myself to some admittedly arbitrary rules: Only two superlatives and one exclamation point per email. I scan each email to weed out the fluff, without cutting so much as to seem rude or abrupt. And, yes, I do this while watching for overuse of “just” and “sorry,” leaning in so far I’m about to face plant. I try to sound like myself. I give others the benefit of the doubt, assuming they are neither rude nor airheaded. And then I sigh, hit Send, and get on with some actual work.