I hate exclamation points. I know they can be useful, but there’s something about fake displays of enthusiasm in professional communications that makes my skin itch. Yet, like a moth and the flame or an Academy Award voter and a movie about how one interracial friendship can cure racism, I can’t help myself. I can pinpoint the exact moment when it happened. Well, more accurately, I can pinpoint the event that led me to sprinkle them in work emails like an overcaffeinated baker making cupcakes.
Setting the Stage
It was early in my legal career. One of my firm’s partners had a unique way of discussing legal issues with new associates. Instead of having the team come into his office to talk the issues through (like a normal person), he would set up mini-trials. When an issue was capable of two reasonable interpretations, he would assign two associates to research and craft arguments in support of the two opposing positions. Then, he would call us both into his office and have us present our arguments to him as he presided over this pseudo-oral argument. While unconventional, this setup was a win-win: the partner got to satisfy his (not-so-secret) desire to be a judge, the lawyers got a chance to practice their oral advocacy skills in a relatively low-pressure environment, and the team got a chance to see all possible sides of the argument. Usually, the issue was not particularly close, so we would all reach the same conclusion. But sometimes, when the issues were close, the lawyers advocating for a particular side would remain convinced their stance was the right one. In the end, however, this partner would make a decision, and the team would proceed from there.
The Battle That (I Thought) I Won
My battle related to whether we should wait to be sued and then move to dismiss the case as an improper forum or affirmatively sue in a district of our choice. I was tasked with arguing the former. At bottom, the issue turned on the potential success of a forum non conveniens motion. Based on my reading of the case law, no reasonable judge would deny our motion. My opponent disagreed. That part wasn’t all that surprising, given it was his job to argue the other side. What did surprise me, though, was how he disagreed with me.
Rather than attack the law or the facts, he attacked me. And not just in the subtle shade that’s the hallmark of our profession (e.g., “I believe my esteemed colleague might be mistaken”). No, he attacked me in ways that suggested that by making this argument, I was either dumb or disingenuous. So now, and from my perspective, I see this white man is basically calling me stupid in front of our boss. I couldn’t stand it. But my mama didn’t raise no fool, so instead of slapping the hell out of him, as I would’ve been inclined to do in the past, I (mostly) calmly pointed out that ad hominem attacks are the lowest form of argument.
Admittedly, I may have raised my voice a few decibels and added some colorful language, but nothing beyond what I hadn’t already heard from other attorneys during similar exercises. The partner deftly redirected us to the matter at hand and a few minutes later, we wrapped up. Later, the other associate came to my office, and we talked it out. We both apologized, chalked it up to the heat of battle, and moved on with our lives. In my mind, the incident left no lasting damage, and I moved on and forgot all about it.
A few days later, my mentor—a black woman—called me to a check-in over coffee. We hadn’t made it to the end of the block before she asked me about the incident. I relayed my version of the story, noting that I thought it went well since the partner ultimately sided with me. She heard a different opinion. The partner had recounted the story to some other partners and described me going “full Angry Black Man.” The way he told it, he basically had to stop me from beating this poor white man over the head with a club. When my mentor overheard the partner’s version of the story, she reached out to me. She knew something that I needed to learn: that black men are already seen as hyperaggressive and we—I—had to take affirmative steps to disabuse people of that reputation.
Image Rehab and Those Exclamation Points(!)
So, after our coffee, I began the task of rehabilitating my image. From that point on, I was aggressively nice so I didn’t scare my coworkers. That’s when I started adding exclamation points to my emails to soften my image. I used every variation of “Thanks!”; “Have a great day!”; and “Hey!” to rehabilitate my Angry Black Man image.
In some ways it worked. For instance, as far as I knew, I never had a problem with that particular partner. But in other ways, the image of me as an Angry Black Man seeped into my daily interactions with my peers, sometimes subconsciously. Robust but friendly arguments with coworkers were replaced with passive acquiescence. It’s like they were trying not to anger me. Normally I get to the right answer on issues by talking it out with my friends. We circle around an issue, going back and forth on the relative merits of opposite positions, until we ultimately land at the right answer. But that process gets short-circuited when my friends are scared to argue with me for fear of me going full King Kong.
I’m not an aggressive or angry person. My parents were proto-woke and worked hard to prevent me from developing negative behaviors associated with hypermasculinity. And for the most part, they succeeded. I pride myself on the fact that I’m not wild in the streets with the toxic masculinity, beyond the occasional future mixtape. But at bottom, does it matter if I’m not aggressive or hypermasculine even if I’m perceived that way? It was hard for me to reckon with the fact that one instance erased years’ worth of goodwill in the eyes of some. I constantly have to evaluate and re-evaluate my behavior so I don’t come across as the Angry Black Man. Each moment that I have to spend doing this takes away from me actually doing my job. It’s hard to quantify the mental cost of this unceasing emotional labor.
(To Be or Not to) Be Your Authentic Self
Some people say forget what others think and just behave how you would normally. But that raises its own set of issues. The news is littered with black men who were shot and killed because they were perceived as threats. Think of all the black talent that has been lost because someone felt threatened by their full, authentic self.
This doesn’t mean that black folks shouldn’t be allowed to be themselves. We deserve an inclusive society, not one that forces people to wear masks to survive. Maybe costs of code-switching outweigh the benefits. That’s a question that I don’t have the answer to. But what I do have is exclamation points. And until someone much brighter than me figures it all out, I’m going to keep sprinkling exclamation points throughout these emails.