Once, many moons ago, I was the managing editor of a small, biweekly political magazine run (mostly) by men. Closing the issue was a fortnightly ordeal in which I spent the afternoons and evenings harassing my colleagues, propelled by the quixotic hope that I could finish before the wee hours of the morning. A midnight stopping point was considered a triumph; more often I found myself staring down the single digits of the clock as the production manager and I huddled over the final proofs. I once walked three miles back to my apartment, unable to find a cab, at dawn. (It was the pre-Uber days.)
In these wee hours, my staff and I could get a little loopy. I nominally supervised a cohort of recent college grads, just a few years younger than I was at the time. In reality, I was more like a bossy older sister who required emails with very specific subject lines. (I had an issue to close! There was no slack.) When one of my ostensible subordinates, in the middle of one of those dazed late-night sessions, closed her email with an xoxo, she immediately followed it with another message to apologize . “I’m so sorry,” she wrote. “That is totally not something you write in a work email.”
I’ve been thinking back to this moment recently when I realized I was regularly deploying Gossip Girl’s preferred sign-off in my professional correspondence as a senior editor at Vogue, and that such liberal sprinklings of affection never would have entered my digital lexicon when I worked at the male-dominated political publication. Did my somewhat unlikely evolution into an editor at a fashion magazine sap my correspondence of its gravity? If Mike Pompeo’s recent email to his State Department employees is anything to go by—“Keep on crushing it”, he wrote—the penultimate line of an email is an opportunity for burly encouragement, not feminine demurral. Was each closing of my correspondence depleting the impact of everything that had come before?
Much has been written about the femininity of the exclamation point—make-nice punctuation that masks an emotional labor that falls disproportionately on women. “We expect exclamation marks (i.e., friendliness) from women,” wrote Amelia Tait in a 2017 piece published in The New Statesman, “and women add exclamation marks to live up to this expectation.” Is xoxo is the new exclamation point? I asked a friend who works in PR, someone who is paid professionally to play nice—and, coincidentally, works in a field dominated by women—if she uses xoxo in her email correspondence, and she wrote back with chipper pep: “Really funny you mention the xo, as I’ve recently noticed I’m using xx far more than I used to.” (She’d never use xoxo in a cold email to a stranger, she asserts, and limits herself to one exclamation point per email.) While more of a xx gal than the xoxo variety, Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, perhaps the most popular book on punctuation ever written, also told me that she notes the tendency for physical symbols of affection in her woman-to-woman correspondence. “Thinking about it, I do notice when women don’t break out the x after a little while. I assume that the x is being deliberately withheld, and that they are telling me, ‘Let’s not get overfamiliar here.’” The pattern held when assessed from the other side: “The xo greeting is something I find unimaginable from a man,” said John McWhorter, a (male) linguist at Columbia University. “Or just maybe, it is conceivable from a gay man, but that means we are more precise and say that it is inconceivable of a straight male (cis male)?”
The idea that language is gendered has a long history, dating, most prominently, to linguist Robin Lakoff’s work in the 1970s, which asserted that gender-based differences between men’s and women’s speech resulted in power differentials. “The ultimate effect of these discrepancies is that women are systematically denied access to power, on the grounds that they are not capable of holding it as demonstrated by their linguistic behavior,” Lakoff wrote. That work has been criticized in the years that followed, but it’s also hard to ignore its impact. (See here, and here, and here for the endless fascination with the girlishness of the exclamation point.)
And something about Lakoff’s theory rings true for me in 2018 when I consider my reliance on xoxo. More recent research seems to show that women do behave differently in their email. At a New Zealand company studied in the grippingly titled Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, researchers found that women at one company were much more likely to act “polite” in email correspondence. Both men and women were equally inclined to include some kind of closing, but men were much more likely to use just their name, while women were almost twice as likely to include a “thanks” or other softening addition. (These findings didn’t hold across all companies; there’s a lot of variation due to workplace culture.)
Time to consult the gendered-language grande dame herself. “Closings (ways of saying ‘goodbye’) are the trickiest points in a conversation, written or oral,” reminded Lackoff in an email. “You have to both get away and convince your addressee that you still like them and want to continue the relationship in the future.” Duly noted, but what does this mean for xoxo? Was I insecurely shouting “like me!” at the end of every missive in an effort to negotiate this tricky terrain like an eager-to-please woman? “I agree that it’s more apt to be used by women than men: We’re more comfortable expressing intimacy, real or conventional,” Lackoff wrote. “It isn’t that men are necessarily more cold or businesslike, but that they are apt to be more comfortable representing themselves that way rather than seemingly giving someone who might be a mere acquaintance a glimpse into their true selves. I think women are more comfortable seemingly erasing those boundaries.”
And there’s the rub—the feeling that my slide into this form of intimacy wasn’t altogether bad. Did I want always to conduct myself at work in a coolly professional way, or was I comfortable injecting some occasional levity—some affection—into my 9-to-5 transactions? It’s not that politics is all business and fashion is all fluff—not at all. As far as I know, the magazine I currently work for never closes in the early morning hours, and that’s entirely due to the culture of extreme efficiency that governs our every keystroke—x’s and o’s included. In greatly reductive terms: If the job gets done, why should I act more like a man? Wouldn’t it be acceptable to think that a man should act more like a woman?
Perhaps, as McWhorter suggested to me, the entire problem with my question is in thinking about xoxo or any phrase alongside a gender binary. There’s an ongoing quest, he reminded me, “to degender language usage completely”—hence them and they as nongender pronouns, and Latinx. “The guiding principle, though, is that changing language can only go so far,” he said. “As long as gender is a perceived binary, ways of indexing it in language will never die.”
As I was writing this piece, corresponding with sources and friends, I became acutely aware of how I was closing each email. I’d linger above my signature line, paralyzed by the message behind the message. Mostly I just concluded with “Thanks” and moved on to other things. But when informed, intelligent responses came back to me signed xoxo at the bottom, I had to smile.