This habit strikes many Europeans as something between eccentric and creepy. Having once worked for a British magazine, I am aware of how my effusive punctuation style reads to them. And yet, when I sit down to compose an email to a European, I find myself compelled to add the things anyway. (!!!)
I have been musing on this habit because I am headed to Britain next week to write about Brexit -- or, given the latest developments, the lack thereof. You want to put your best foot forward when asking strangers to explain things to you, and so, as I sat down at my keyboard to type out my interview requests, I thought, "This time I shall be strong: no exclamation points." With great mental effort, I managed to pare them down to the absolute minimum. Which was still approximately 1,000 percent more than most Europeans would consider the utter maximum.
But, in the end, I wonder if I should have just worn the punctuation as a badge of honor, a symbol of national pride. Exclamation points in emails are, after all, as American as apple pie and "The Star-Spangled Banner" -- and like those patriotic staples, they actually have some nice history behind them.
It seems likely that the habit of peppering emails with exclamation points is related to the broader American habit of expressing effusive enthusiasm over almost everything. Some foreigners express wonder at our incredible friendliness (which shows up, among other ways, in our customer service), but others complain that it seems fake -- rather the way Americans regard excessively oleaginous salespeople.
There's something to the complaints of artifice; after all, the store clerks who ask how you're doing don't actually expect to hear about your recent divorce. Emotion and language that would elsewhere signal deep intimacy are in America just a kind of mass-produced social lubricant.
But then, we need more lubricant than most. Cultures that have more heterogeneity -- a fancy term for "lots of different subcultures, all mashed up together" -- turn out to rely more than others on exaggerated displays of emotion. We smile more, and bigger; we frown more, and bigger, too. That's because we can't rely on subtler cultural signals of mood, or even the same language. Emotionally speaking, where other countries whisper, we have to shout.
So it's not surprising that a country that has experienced high levels of migration for hundreds of years ended up with a culture where the default public presentation resembles that of a Labrador retriever. And when such zeal becomes the default, a more reserved style doesn't simply signal tasteful understatement; it signals a cold indifference to the people around you.
Nor is it surprising that this exaggerated positive affect would make its way into our emails, which most people treat more like a conversation than formal letter-writing. Just as you wouldn't respond to someone who did something for you with a toneless "thanks" -- at least, not unless you were (BEG ITAL)trying (END ITAL)to signal your disappointment with their lackluster efforts -- you can hardly deliver the same words over email unadorned.
Of course, this creates a struggle for Americans who interact with people abroad. We may be aware that our exclamation points and smiley faces make us look, to many foreigners, like a nation of particularly unsophisticated 12-year-old girls. But we'll still struggle to tone it down, because cultural norms like the appropriate level of friendliness to strangers are deeply ingrained by the time we hit correspondence age. Few people can steel themselves to be willfully rude, even to strangers who won't take it that way.
So perhaps the best solution is simply to own it. Fly those emoticons proudly! Exclaim away!
And perhaps it will help to remember that our hyper-extroversion is actually more a sign of sophistication than its opposite -- of a culture that had to get cosmopolitan centuries before that became fashionable, and that somehow figured out a cultural hack to make one people out of many.
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