The Exclamation Point and The Rorschach Test

I have a fatal cyber flaw: I cannot grasp internet sarcasm. I am now wondering if this makes me old (read: unhip), or whether this makes me just not quite cut out for the Internet (capital “I”). Either way, I blame the exclamation point!

errors!Did I just yell? Did I laugh? Was I angry? You will never know. There must be some level of exclamatory congruity brewing across this great cybersphere; there must be some level of mutual understanding: “yes, the exclamation point means this, this or this, depending on the context.” Obviously, it is emphasis of some sort, right? Yes. Ok? Agreed. But! (Interjection) Here is the real crux: I just presume everyone on the internet is being genuine. Sheesh. That was like an AA meeting:

“Hi, my name is Shawn, and I presume all people on the internet are genuine.”
Let’s all welcome Shawn: “Hi Shawn!”

Damnit! What just happened there? Were they excited to greet me? Are they angry with me? Does that (!) emphasize their voices in unison? Oh, man! (Crap…) There it is again. That last time I think it signifies consternation, but I cannot be sure. Although, now I think we are getting to the bottom of this (!) mystery: the signifier. Oh, that slippery signifier. I would like to thank Jacques Lacan and Ferdinand de Saussure (two people I will NOT be naming my unborn sons after!) for this mysterious signifier; this tender, unreliable thing that invokes and evokes meaning of a unique thing to each and every individual and conjures up images of unique things and memories that tangle (and tango) with other memories, colors, smells, making us unique in our (physique) ambitions, talents, thoughts, actions and desires. Sheesh. Signifier. How ’bout a demonstration?

(I read that last paragraph and think of loveable, furry, old Grover. Remember him? Blue. Monstrous. Real skinny. Flailed his arms a lot. Wandered around Sesame Street. Unassuming. Loves words, letters, soup. Dressing up as a waiter, superhero, cowboy, etc. He had this frequent skit where he would be discussing a thing, say an (!), and that thing, say an orange, foam, 2-foot tall (!) with a little black wire near the bottom that I started to only notice later on in my childhood, would just pop up while he was discussing it. The cool part is that Grover was completely surprised! He was all like, “AAAHHH!!! (Grover yelled a lot, not in a frightening way) WHAT is this thing!?!?!” And then it would go away. He would begin talking about it again, and then BLAAM! The foam (!) would show up! Right in the middle of him talking about the actual thing! Talk about your return of the repressed! Crazy. Anyhooo. Where was I?)

(Oh yeah!) What have we learned? So, the (!) means different things to different people: signifier. And I assume you are all being genuine (you nice folks, you). What is left? Oh, ugh, another confession: I write blog posts either smiling, slightly laughing, or convincing myself that something that does not appear funny actually is funny. Not in a mad-scientist-y way. No. More like a: “Shawn, you are hilarious!”-type of way. Which leads me to my next point: I blame the exclamation point because it tells us about ourselves.

Mr. Johnson (Sesame Street)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The exclamation point is our very own Rorschach test: it reveals to us exactly what we want to see. When I come across an exclamation point in an internet comment, I usually see happiness, laughter, humor, an interjection, or surprise. I cannot locate cynicism. I do not read it. And I do not speak it. I feel as though I need an (*) for every time I use a (!), just to make sure that the commenter believes that I too am genuine. As though I need to convince them ever so desperately, “Listen! I mean it! I truly do! It is not sarcasm!!!” I want them to see my ink blot. My Rorschach. I also want them to see loveable, furry, old Grover perhaps repeatedly attempting to serve a bowl of hot alphabet soup during a windstorm to this other dapper, blue fellow who always yells “Ohhhh, waiter!” with lips hidden behind a glorious, old-school mustache as an obvious signifier of sophistication and learning and the antithesis to Grover’s unkempt, shaggy blue hair, inept social skills, abhorrence of any and all contractions, and inability to secure steady employment leading him to later adopt a schizophrenic, Quixotic personality and dawn a billowing, red cape and an often faulty, metal helmet so that he may be better rescue precious kittens from trees and us from ultimately misunderstanding (!). Whew! Loveable, furry, old Grover. Taught me everything I know about (!).

Thanks everyone. Hope you enjoy!


22 thoughts on “The Exclamation Point and The Rorschach Test

  1. As per usual, your blog was a pleasure to read (most especially the parenthetical addendums). I completely concur about exclamation points. Personally, I use them when yelling online and/or flailing (yes, e-flailing Kermit style), however, I also refuse to use more than one, though that’s mostly because if I do otherwise my inner editor rears her waspish head and we commence an epic battle for the fate of my literary brain. I think there should be a sarcasm font or button (like underline and bold) and we actually discussed it in a Lit. class of mine a couple years ago (the general consensus was that it should be somewhat like Italics but wavy, going up and down to denote the exaggerated vocal fluctuations, which are the keystones of successful sarcasm). Yet in lieu of the font, we are forced to rely on shrewd reading, emoticons, and/or heavy-handed sarcasm (nooo, /really/?). Previously I had never really thought of exclamation points having much to do with sarcasm, though I can see how they could be used that way ( ).
    I like the idea of the exclamation ink blots. I think in a way, language in general is a Rorschach test, but rather than showing us what we want to see, it shows us our own biases and misgivings, our predispositions and pet peeves. While some people read text-speak fluently and hear it mentally as normal conversation, others cannot read letters replacing words without hearing the sentences (or fragments) in a mockingly juvenile voice. Some people use “lol” and exclamation points instead of periods every time they type and read sentences free of the exuberant additions as dry or deadpan ( ). While the latter people may read the former’s sentences as spastic and sugar-rush driven. Everything is perception and preconceived notions and even if the glorious day of the sarcasm font arrives, that won’t change.

    • Thanks Little Lauren! I too realized that (!!!) was a bit much, and, well, as endearing as it may seem, quite unnecessary. I did find this on ye old internet, Apparently, ‘irony punctuation’ is like sarcasm punctuation. It’s a backward ‘?’… go figure! But I like the idea of a “wavy” sarcastic font. That’s nice.
      The best part of writing is when those few people discover your exact intent. There’s not only a connection, but an understanding. And that’s very cool.

  2. Better write this comment very quickly because some Rorschach test interpreter (like a Psychologist) might conclude I’m in shock of “!” – seeing the “!”, I mean. To me the “!” means I really, really mean this! So I yell with an “!” and Grover, who never used contractions, would have a really difficult time these days of digital, quick, cyber communications WTF! OMG! LOL! FAQ! SMS! AFAIK! BBS! I enjoyed this post about “I” – hooked me from start to end

    • OMG. Grover would have soooo much trouble with cyber speak! Haha! My point exactly about the (!). I also think (!) is an absolute conviction, but I think it can be understood as mocking. And on the internet you never can tell, so I just presume everyone is being sincere and nice! šŸ™‚ Thanks for the comment, Ina!

  3. Great post! Do you find that your students (over)use the exclamation point in their papers? We have a discussion about it in my sections of developmental writing. I’ve noticed in the past couple of years that students feel like they need it for emphasis when they want to make a point.

    • I haven’t had much of that Rachel. I get run-on sentences from artful students, and fragments from the not-so-artful. šŸ™‚
      In my experience, you are spot on: students use it for emphasis, but only when proving a point. Yes. It kind of solidifies that “Eureka!” moment, as though they didn’t even know they thought that point; “Look at this, teacher!” šŸ˜€
      It’s pretty rare that one runs across an (!) in any essay or academic literature. I use (!) all the time. Luckily, it still retains its ooomph in my usage. Well, at least I think so.

  4. Indeed, indeed. And does a parenthetical ! change its meaning? I would also be curious to hear your thoughts on the use of the ellipsis on the internet. (…)

    • Oh boy, I hope the parenthetical doesn’t change its meaning! šŸ˜€ What a depth of beautiful understanding we have with language. I love the ellipsis! I always imagine crickets when I see it used in informal print, or that silent moment when tv has helped us imagine that something snappy and witty should happen in our lives in order to break for commercial, but then it doesn’t… and we just stare… šŸ™‚
      Or… ellipses is a “wait for it” moment when you know there is a corny punchline coming.

    • Emoticons are like tidal waves: they erase and negate all preceding statements, but only according to the emoticon that follows it. Thanks for the comment tsanzo! šŸ˜€

  5. (Everytime I read “Rorschach Test”, I think about the movie “What about Bob?” and the Rorschach Test joke scene.)
    I feel sorry for the exclamation point. Poor fellow gets abused over and over on the world wide web, all because of that need for emphasis and credibility. If people were more sincere online we wouldn’t have to be left to assume everyone is nice. That’s why online daters have such a hard time deciphering the real meaning behind words or even acronyms they read. Their lives would be so much easier if they returned to having real conversations in real life with real people. They could easily see expressions, body language, entonation and not be left with a big (!) on top of their heads.
    You’re not old (unhip) for not getting the net sarcasm. I agreee with you. I’d never seen it that way, but yes, the exclamation point can be our own Rorschach test, it all depends on the eye of the beholder.

    Oh and yeah, I’m with Tsanzo, would love to hear Grover’s input on emoticons! šŸ™‚

    • Fantastic! (wait, let’s try this again).
      Fantastic. (you see… just not the same. :-))
      I’m eternally enthusiastic, and I think there is no better way to show this then the exclamation point. But, just, darn it, sometimes it feels like everyone is doing it! And then my (!) is just another (!) vying for credibility. Bloggeretterized, that is exactly it: credibility. I think there is a special thing about the anonymity of online-ness that lends itself to sarcasm; so when one finds sincerity, one should take note, I think. Yeah.
      I think Cookie Monster is gonna handle emoticons… šŸ˜€

    • Thanks Ginger! I’m glad you liked it. I was aiming for a bit of stream-of-consciousness without contractions… šŸ™‚
      Sure you can use it. As long as it’s for good and not evil. šŸ˜‰

  6. This is so true! Internet sarcasm is actually a pretty bad invention… considering that it was a complete accident. The next time you listen to somebody saying something sarcastic, think of it as an accident. It totally gives a new perspective on it… it’s weird… ~

  7. Ha! Thank you for reading my mind good sir. Very insightful stuff. I think it is exceedingly interesting, especially today, in an age where “texting” is everything, how much these simple grammatical characters play a role in our day to day lives. Pardon me for being a bit dramatic, but it’s true! I would be very curious to hear your views on “the smiley.” Keep up the great work!

    • Thanks JJG! I’m an advocate of “the smiley”. There are some people out there with deadpan humor, and it is extra difficult to receive the joke through text. My experience has been: if you don’t want me to take you seriously, put a smiley at the end. It seems to work!

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