(This essay, originally titled "Like OMG! Why Grown WOmen Speak Like Teenagers Online" was originally published on Role/Reboot.)
I have a problem, an embarrassing problem. I’m ashamed to even admit it, although I have a feeling that my friends and family may already be clued in. I don’t think I’m alone in it either, so maybe by speaking out, I can help other women come clean too.
So, with a deep breath, here’s my confession: When I text, email, and IM, I talk like a freaking preteen.
No, I don’t take selfies, I don’t twerk, and I don’t follow the Biebs, but I use so many acronyms, you’d think I was writing in NSA-level code. My emails are studded with so many exclamation points that the page looks like a paint-splattered Jackson Pollock. I begin many texts with an OMG, even if it’s to say, “OMG, clementines are on sale!” or “OMG, Target’s dollar bins are amaze right now!” I’ve somehow managed to avoid falling into the LOL trap (go me!), but I feel compelled to respond to a clever email with multiple “haha’s” to indicate genuine gut-busting laughter instead of sarcasm. Although not a huge fan of emoticons, I do use Emoji’s on occasion, jokingly, like responding to a “See you soon!” text with two tango dancers and a peace sign.
So why, oh why, have I adopted the enthusiastic e-speak reserved for cheerleaders? Am I trying to keep up with the kids these days? Is it because it’s just so adorable? Or is it because I have some kind of aversion to being taken seriously as a grown-ass woman, one who can spell and speak in full sentences? I’m in my mid-30's, for God’s sake. I have children. I’m a smart, articulate, thoughtful adult who actually writes for a living…with real words. What am I doing?
Sadly, I know exactly what I’m doing. In the fuzzy world of cyber-connection, I’m trying to make sure I come across as pleasant, friendly, happy, easy. Without my voice to indicate tone, I have to rely on my words and when words don’t cut it, I turn to enthusiastic exclamation points and gold-star-sticker language (Awesome! Great! You rock!).
As I write a simple exchange, I think about the other person, and how he or she will interpret what they read. If an email gets too serious, too direct, I sweeten it with rah-rah language. I try to convey that I’m psyched to turn in a piece on a super-tight deadline. And that newborn of yours is especially super-adorable because I told you, “AAAAAAAAH” in all caps and then said I was dying of cuteness overload. And what you just wrote was way funny, so funny that I can’t stop typing “h” and “a” over and over and over until I get carpal tunnel of the thumbs. Your boss was flirting with your husband? Maybe I’ll throw in some all-caps to express my shock and awe, and a question mark/exclamation point combo that really highlights how confounded I am. I might even extend the vowel for that gasp effect. (WHAAAAAT?! REALLY?!)
Am I overthinking it? Um, duh, you think? In my efforts to be engaged, I’ve clearly created my own monster. When I think back, I realize that I may have even started using OMG ironically. Once the overeager cyber-speak began though, I couldn’t just stop. After all of my usual excitement, a simple period might come across as abrupt, rude, cold. Seriously. I’ll admit that sometimes I’ve read emails from friends, family, and editors and assumed annoyance in a simple “sure” response. At some point, they clearly hit me with the “thanks so much!” or “xoxo,” and now I’ve come to expect it. Ah, it’s a vicious cycle, stemming from one very common affliction: a need many of us women have to be nice, almost too nice.
It’s not a problem that men have, at least as far as I can tell. I’ve never once received an abrupt email from a man and wondered, “Is he mad at me?” Even when I’m bugging my husband at work via Gchat, his series of “ok,” “np,” and “ttyl” lines don’t offend me. (Just in case you need me to translate, the latter two are “no problem” and “talk to you later.”) I just assume he’s busy. If I get that kind of short answer from a female friend though, oh, hell no, I’ve got to ask, “Everything OK?” And nine times out of 10, yes, they’re just busy too. Still, I readily accept this kind of shorthand from men, and question it from women, either because of my own e-patois or theirs.
I know that those of us guilty of this have good intentions. We want to keep things pleasant. We want to let someone know we appreciate their kindness or their sense of humor. Sometimes we want to avoid confrontation. And, yes, sometimes we just want to be liked.
Whatever the reason though, I worry that I may be coming across as fluffy, empty, and weak-minded, even in business emails. I am easy-going, I am friendly, I am happy to help. I also think my friends’ stories and quips are really funny and that their children are especially cute, or else I wouldn’t say anything.
My feelings are genuine, but thanks to all of my effusive language, it’s awkwardly expressed. I think I’m doing myself a disservice. The problem is that, as annoying as I’m starting to find my own e-speak, it may be too late to stop now.