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by Vault Consulting Editors | October 10, 2007

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The exclamation point-the most evocative character in the English language-is frequently associated with a more feminine style of writing. Take this snippet from one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes:

Elaine: Did anyone call? Jake: I got a few messages, I wrote them down. Elaine: Where are they? Jake: Lets see, they are...here they are. Elaine: Thank you. Heh, I'll call you back. Ooh, Myra had the baby! Oh, my God that's wonderful! Who called? Jake: She did. Elaine: She did? Oh, that's so great! Jake: Where do you keep the corkscrew? Elaine: In the drawer on the right. Hmm... Jake: What? Elaine: Oh it's nothing. Jake: What is it? Elaine: It's nothing. Jake: Tell me. Elaine: Well, I was just curious why you didn't use an exclamation point? Jake: What are you talking about? Elaine: See, right here you wrote "Myra had the baby", but you didn't use an exclamation point. Jake: So? Elaine: So, it's nothing. Forget it, forget it, I just find it curious. Jake: What's so curious about it? Elaine: Well, I mean if one of your close friends had a baby and I left you a message about it, I would use an exclamation point. Jake: Well, maybe I don't use my exclamation points as haphazardly as you do. Elaine: You don't think that someone having a baby warrants an exclamation point. Jake: Hey, I just chalked down the message. I didn't know I was required to capture the mood of each caller. Elaine: I just thought you would be a little more excited about a friend of mine having a baby. Jake: Ok, I'm excited. I just don't happen to like exclamation points. Elaine: Well, you know Jake, you should learn to use them. Like the way I'm talking right now, I would put an exclamation points at the end of all these sentences! On this one! And on that one! Jake: Well, you can put one on this one: I'm leaving!

These days, Deloitte has brought a new respect to that slender scratch-and-dot, which generally does not get its due in straight-faced business correspondence. A Wall Street Journal article published on Monday told the story of one consultant who used an exclamation point in an e-mail to one of his female clients. The client's response: "Guys do not use exclamation points. Is he making fun of me?"

The exclamation mark is just one example of Deloitte's new strategy for approaching male and female clients differently. The methodology stems from the psychological basis that men and women shop differently for consumer goods-and so too for professional services. The firm is now offering workshops for its consultants to teach them about some of the underlying differences in the gender psyche and, consequently, how to sell female clients differently than their male counterparts-a demographic historically more frugal in their use of emotive punctuation!

I'm torn: As the article points out, while some may perceive these gestures as being sensitive and receptive to women, some female clients may find them patronizing and stereotypical. Indeed, after many years of struggling to be treated as equals in the business world, women have worked their way into the upper echelons of major corporations (though not always in the upper ranks of consulting firms-yet). They've been trained to give a firm handshake, to be outspoken, unemotional, to go along with the (mostly male) gang. Because to be a leading lady in business, you have to wash away the gender distinctions; you are not a businesswoman, you are a businessperson. A chairperson, not a chairwoman.

Is Deloitte's approach a step in the right direction? Is evoking the gender divide a logical next step in the perpetual race to win clients? Or will it erase the progress that's been made over the last decades in degenderifying (new word!) corporate culture? While the impact of this new methodology has yet to unfold in the business world, in its most basic terms, Deloitte's approach can be a valuable lesson for any man on how to treat a lady!

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