If someone asks you a question online or over text, do not respond with “OK.” or “Yes.” You might use “sure” or “yep” without punctuation; you should probably add an exclamation mark. Otherwise you might sound passive aggressive, dismissive, or angry. There’s a good reason for this.
While I thought everyone knew this by now, at least one New York Times reader needed to be told. Advice columnist Caity Weaver (emeritus of our former sister site Gawker) explained that replying with “O.K.” or “K” could come across as rude, and recommended “kk” or “O.K.!” But why?
In person, when you want to say something politely, you say it less efficiently. You “make an extra effort,” says linguist Gretchen McCulloch in her book Because Internet, “using hedges, honorifics, or simply more words: ‘Doctor, could I possibly trouble you to open the window?’ versus ‘Open the window!’” Online, you do the same, with different tactics.
One of those, writes McCulloch, is the exclamation mark. In 2014, the Onion established that only a “stone-hearted ice witch” would send a “great to see you” email with zero exclamation marks. A recent popular Instagram post makes the same point via Baby Yoda screenshot. The necessity of the exclamation mark has carried over to texts, chat, and Slack.
Another tactic I’ve used is to replace “yes” with “yep,” or “sure” with “sure thing”—using the casual form of a word to sound less like an android or a cop. Not too far, or the sincerity starts sounding like sarcasm—but pay attention to the ways you say yes in person, and try to imitate those in your messages. You’ll probably notice you use more words in person than you thought, even to say “yes.”
These tiny choices matter when you’re sending tiny messages. In a longer message, you have more options for communicating tone of voice, especially in the actual words you use. In a stock message like “yes,” you have very little room to indicate tone.
In person, you use more words, but you also—consciously or not—deliver everything with a tone of voice, facial expression, and body language. If you were to let your face go slack, stand stock still, and say “Yes.” in a tone of finality, it’d be fair to assume that you were being intentionally unfriendly.
Same goes online. If you do want to express blank disdain to someone online, you write formally, use a period to add finality to your words, or make your words as low-effort as possible, to signify you want to waste zero time on this interaction. (Watch people arguing on social media some time.) If you don’t want to sound disdainful, be about 50% nicer than you think you need to.
Weaver writes half-jokingly in her column, “As a woman, I maintain a bustling control centre behind my thoughts where everything said to me is parsed for evidence of impending physical threats.” This is true of everyone to some extent: We’re all scanning communication for a potential threat, if only emotional. So if your message can be read as threatening or cold, it will be. (The solo letter “k” is a famously dismissive reply to anything stupid.) To avoid that, inject some warmth.
These customs change over time and across populations. You probably know someone who overdoes the multiple exclamation marks. (It happens all the time in company-wide emails from HR, or other departments that really really need to sound friendly to everyone all the time.) You might find a community of professionals who seem to get along just fine with formal language. But if you’re the most formal one in the group, then believe me: everyone thinks you hate them.