How can something like punctuation affect your relationships?

Punctuation may be having more of an impact on your relationships now than at any previous point in human history.

At no other time have we communicated on such a broad scale through written communication.

When you combine emails, instant messaging, online chatting, and text messaging, not to mention snail mail, post cards, and handwritten notes, the communication of most of your thoughts comes in writing.

Punctuation marks have developed to help capture the meaning conveyed through the inflection of the voice. Without your voice to accompany the text, sometimes it can be difficult to understand the intended meaning. Because you are not there to witness the impact of your words and clarify any miscommunication, something as simple as punctuation may greatly impact how people “see” you.

We’re not going to get bogged down in rules here.  If you want grammar lessons, look elsewhere.  And you should, because grammar mistakes can demolish what you’re trying to say.

For now, let’s look at some common punctuation habits that could be affecting your relationships that you aren’t aware of. By breaking these bad habits, you can communicate better with others and improve your relationships.

1. Are your parentheses passive-aggressive?

When I taught English, my students learned that parentheses convey ideas that you would say with your hands cupped around your mouth to share a secret.

We’re going to Disney World for vacation again this year (because Mom has to have her way).

Parentheses can come across as tongue-in-cheek, playful, j/k.  If you’re not careful, though, parentheses come out as claws, sharing information that draws blood.

It takes skill to use parenthetical phrases for humor without coming across as passive-aggressive.

If you find that people are taking offense to your asides, try leaving them out, especially in work-related messages.  Here’s a chance to keep your foot out of your mouth.

2. Are you over-using exclamation marks?

Hey! Exclamation marks are great! They tell you that I am excited! Or I am outraged! Or I stubbed my toe!

When you use exclamation marks too frequently, though, you can come across like a chihuahua. While chihuahuas are lovely creatures, I have a difficult time taking them seriously. Chances are, if you overly-use exclamation marks, people have come to think of you as overly-excited, overly-dramatic, or insincere.

Aim to use exclamations when you truly want to convey intense feelings or opinion.  Or, if you truly are that indefatigable spirit or want to be the Cranky Old Man, keep using those exclamations! Just make sure you mean it!

3. Are your texts inadvertently angry?

The period can make you seem pissed. Ben Crair at “The New Republic” suggests that short texts ending in periods can come across as short-tempered.

The first rule of punctation is that all sentences should end in a punctuation mark, yes? But maybe this could change for texts.  When I’m speaking, I don’t say “period” at the end of each sentence. There is a tonal implication of the end.

In texting, try using line breaks to convey thoughts without seeming to make statements with finality. Consider the meaning sent by this text:

I’d like to go see a movie.

How does that compare with the meaning sent by this text:

I’d like to go see a movie

Which one means, “I’m open to seeing a movie but I could do whatever” versus “The only thing I want to do is see a movie”?

If your texts are short and direct, but you don’t want to convey that you are short-tempered and bossy, try cutting out periods and use line breaks instead.

4. Are you too passive and unsure?

At the other extreme, some folks can communicate a lack of confidence.

The over-use of questions and lack of punctuation signals that you don’t know what you want.  Look at these examples:

After reviewing the report’s findings, option C seems to have more benefits?

get some things from the store for me?

you room should be clean when I get home

People feel secure in relationships that have clear boundaries. If you communicate with too many question marks or consistently without punctuation, people may see you as uncertain.

Assertive communication, however, is clear with no room for confusion.

The report will be on your desk by 3.

When you want to come across with more authority, use periods at the end of non-negotiable statements.

5. Are you too aggressive?

WHILE NOT PUNCTUATION, CONSTANT CAPITALIZATION HAS A MAJOR AFFECT ON WRITTEN TEXT.

IT CAN COME ACROSS AS LAZY.  IS IT REALLY THAT DIFFICULT TO TURN OFF THE CAPS LOCK?

IT CAN COME ACROSS AS IGNORANT. DO YOU NOT KNOW THE RULES SO YOU JUST CAPITALIZE EVERYTHING?

IT CAN COME ACROSS AS POMPOUS. DO YOU THINK EVERYTHING YOU HAVE TO SAY IS THAT IMPORTANT?

IT CAN COME ACROSS AS AGGRESSIVE.  I FEEL LIKE I’M BEING YELLED AT.

If you have been a caps lock addict, it’s time to get some help. (Ah, doesn’t that feel better?) You may make some mistakes as you go through withdrawal, but in the long-run you will connect with others.

Are there other ways punctuation can rub you the wrong way? Got any real-life examples?  Please share them in the comments below.

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