Shouting from the top of my new online profile, the heading takes me aback: Hi, I’m Stephanie! It makes me cringe. I want to hide from the aggressive friendliness I’ve now trumpeted into cyberspace.
It’s that cheerleader exclamation point that throws me off balance. I am not Stephanie! with big, doe eyes and a toothy smile flinging my arms wide to embrace the world. While this website needs me to project the image of a reasonable, responsible person so property owners will rent me a vacation house, why must I be especially charismatic to qualify? Or better yet: why!?!
I’m not sure what punctuation would satisfy me here. Which mark could adequately represent my character? I’m not Stephanie? At least, I hope not. A question mark after my name suggests friends got stranded with me at a lake house after I’ve had a psychotic break. Am I lurking in the shadows, chin tucked, ropes of clotted hair dangling across my face? With a question mark, my terrified friends are huddled together, whispering my name in a guttural plea, “Stephanie?” and praying I’m not waiting around the next corner with a chainsaw. No. Though I may drift around looking sullen at parties and I avoid the Chatty Cathies when I walk my dog in the park, that’s no reason to call my character into question. I phone my mom. I dote on my dog. I try to meet deadlines. These things make me a reasonable person, right?
The solid, permanent period seems like it could be a good fit. It’s the go-to punctuation mark, the standard. Yet set beside a name, the tiny period carries too much weight. It feels grim, almost hostile. Hi, I’m Stephanie. A humorless introduction like that wields a different type of aggression than the over-enthusiastic exclamation point. The voice attached to the period is gruff and abrupt. The handshake will crush your bones. Put a period behind my name and you’ll wonder why I’m so pissed off. The sentiment might be right, but I can’t just come out and announce my nihilism when I want to rent a stranger’s house. Though, I do like to say the whole statement out loud with the punctuation: I am Stephanie period. Read that way, the mark adds a dry humor to the announcement that feels almost right, like a smirk.
Can’t use the comma at the end of a heading because, well, it’s just bad grammar. Yet, the idea is tempting. The mark leaves you teetering a little, tripping down the slope of its tail, wondering what the hell happened up there and what’s coming next. End commas are meant for letters, though, not for headlines. So, much as I appreciate the suspense of the flirty little mark, the comma won’t do. Nor could I play with other fun punctuators like the semicolon or the m-dash—which is too bad. Their indecisive nature probably aligns best with my own; these marks take you aside and invite you into another room to ponder a tangent—sometimes when the m-dash is feeling generous it escorts you back to the main idea. The colon, on the other hand, is all business: like the period, it’s far too serious and official to stand by my name out in the digital ether.
The real problem is there should be no punctuation in the heading. Maybe what makes the exclamation point so jarring—at least to me—is that it’s not necessary. Normally, when I build an online profile, my name stands alone on the page. I am Stephanie without the salutation or further punctuation. In general, you can’t determine character from a name. I’d argue you can’t garner much information from coerced punctuation either. Am I friendly? There’s no way to know by my name. Even my short bio won’t tell the whole truth: that I’m not especially friendly when you first meet me, and I don’t improve much with time, either. I’m not gregarious or amicable or bubbly or any other word that suggests a person who gets along smashingly with others. By insisting on that happy exclamation point, the site is insisting on some shaky logic: that to be jubilant is to be sociable and to be sociable is to be the kind of respectful person who won’t destroy a stranger’s home. But come on, quiet grumps like me aren’t the ones who chum up to the locals and throw epic parties. The contrived glee of an exclamation point leaping after my name contradicts the rest of my profile, data culled through pull down lists and check boxes, which reveals I prefer to be left alone, and while I may try to flee any person who interacts with me when I’m renting a house, I’ll take care of your house just fine.
About the Author: Stephanie Barton's work has appeared in The Louisville Review, Minerva Rising, Under the Gum Tree, Appalachian Heritage, and Guernica Online. She is a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts. Stephanie lives in New Mexico with her husband and an old dog.