The Mark of Sincerity

For the Atlantic, Julie Beck has written a lovely piece about the exclamation mark and how our use of it has changed in recent years:

Much like awesome once served a greater purpose, the exclamation point has been downgraded from a shout of alarm or intensity to a symbol that indicates politeness and friendliness. As Shipley and Schwalbe put it in their guide: “Exclamation points can instantly infuse electronic communication with human warmth.” And that’s what we use them for now.

“The single exclamation mark is being used not as an intensity marker, but as a sincerity marker,” says Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist who studies online communication. “If I end an email with ‘Thanks!,’ I’m not shouting or being particularly enthusiastic; I’m just trying to convey that I’m sincerely thankful, and I’m saying it with a bit of a social smile.”

This kind of communication isn’t only limited to messages with friends though, as I’ve started to notice how at work there’s something going on, too. Lowercase sentences, uncorrected spelling mistakes, the proliferation of emoji – all of it announces a new kind of enthusiasm and sincerity.

Well, sort of. Later in the post Beck clarifies that although exclamation marks have changed to suggest sincerity in written communication, there is a new kind of work that women have to do at the workplace because of it:

The pressure to use exclamation points can sometimes feel stifling—a trap Tannen calls “enthusiasm constraint.” The belts on this particular straitjacket are tighter for women, as many studies have shown; exclamation points can be a sort of emotional labor women have to perform to be liked, especially in the workplace. But since so much communication now occurs in text form, with no tone, body language, or facial expressions adorning it, it makes sense that we’ve found another way to smooth interactions. And it seems this meaning of the exclamation point has stabilized, and is intuitively understood by most internet users.

I remember my old boss commenting once that she felt she had to end every comment she made on Slack with an emoji, out of fear that she sounded far too blunt. At the time I laughed it off as a joke of hers but it wasn’t until much later that I realized this was a kind of pressure that I will never experience writing as a guy.

Speaking of sincerity marks though, Aileen Kwun wrote a piece for Fast Co. all about the design of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign in the 14th congressional district in NY. It’s important to note that this campaign also prominently features exclamation marks:

Double the exclamation marks for double the sincerity! It’s certainly uplifting to see a political campaign that doesn’t have a million American flags in the background and isn’t using a cheesy buzzword or catch phrase. There’s no “Believe in America” or “Together We Will Win” cliché bullshit. Instead, it’s Ocasio-Cortez’s name that’s the reason for optimism and exclamation. I mean just look at this stuff:

The lead designer on this project was Maria Arenas and in an interview with n+1 she reveals that the primary typeface used for the project is Norwester, designed by Jamie Wilson:

In a lot of places this sort of big, bold, all caps type could look infantilizing and patronizing, or too macho and industrial. So to make this sort of typeface not look robotic and other-worldly I think gives a lot of credit to Maria Arenas’ design and how she deployed it in the posters and websites for Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign.

Quite honestly though I can’t remember the last time I was excited for the future of a political candidate, and I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed the graphic design of a campaign either. Everything about Ocasio-Cortez feels like it was ripped straight out of the West Wing and I worry that as I type this you can hear trumpets and pianos blaring in the background, reaching a crescendo where you feel that everything isn’t going to hell, that this year wasn’t a complete disaster. And if you’re anything like me then you might feel that little stone your heart has become now beating in strange and fabulous ways again.

This is what hope – and more importantly sincerity – really feels like, huh?