Whether you’re texting a friend or ironing out a new business strategy over Zoom, do you ever feel like something crucial is being lost in communication? There’s a reason for that. According to my guest this week, Erica Dhawan, it’s just as important to effectively master the art of digital body language as it is to master the other types of nonverbal language that we use in face-to-face interactions. “The problem is, we often don’t realize we’re using these signals,” she says.
Erica is the author of a tremendously valuable book on this topic, “Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance.” In our conversation, we talk about how to communicate effectively in the digital landscape so that it’s done right the first time and with a sense of empathy for the people we’re interacting with. Whether you’re leading cross-cultural teams or you’re just trying to avoid mixed messages with friends over text, you’ll gain important insight about modern communication from this episode.
Why We Need to Become Better Aware of Our Digital Body Language
As Erica mentions, “Research shows that 75% of face-to-face communication is our nonvebal body language: pacing, pauses, gestures, smiles.” The majority of our communication was already becoming digital even before the pandemic sped up the process. So what happens to these incredibly important parts of how we speak to each other and build trust as our communication moves to a digital landscape? Well, they don’t just vanish or become irrelevant. “The reality is that body language hasn’t disappeared, it is transformed. We now embed digital body language signals and cues that help bring back a sense of nuance and tone,” she says.
When we aren’t sensitive to how our messages are coming across digitally, that’s how miscommunications arise. And that can have some major consequences in relationships. Consider this example that Erica gives:
“Ethan is a team member who gets fire drill requests from his boss. He stays up all night working on the deliverable. He gives a deliverable to his boss and he sees the relief, the exhale in his boss’s face. … Ethan feels valued, respected. He knows that his leader knows how hard he worked. Now, let’s imagine this in a world with no body cues. Ethan stays up all night. He sends that deliverable at 7:40 a.m. He may get no response from his boss. He may get a “K.” [as a reply]. This is a situation where Ethan may not feel as valued and as respected.”
It’s clear from this example that Ethan’s boss should have paid more attention to his digital body language in order to resolve any ambiguity and assumptions about what sending a dismissive-seeming “K.” meant.
Becoming More Explicit in Our Digital Body Language
What is implicit in our traditional face-to-face body language signals now has to be explicit in our digital body language. But we’re limited by these tiny screens in front of our faces. So what can we do to break out of those restrictions and carry over the intensity and clarity in our communication to digital?
Erica shares another example of a moment when a leader was not as explicit as they should have been, as well as what they could have done to communicate more effectively:
“One leader, Adrial, had a quick idea for a project that she wanted her team member, Brian, to work on. So one Thursday night, she sends them a no subject calendar invite for a meeting the next morning, 8 a.m. She comes to the meeting, and little does she know Brian thought he was about to get fired. There had been budget cuts during that week, and he didn’t sleep all night. He assumed the worst. He looked exhausted. … Now while this story may seem trivial, the honest truth is to never confuse a brief message with a clear message.”
When it comes to digital body language, brevity can be your worst enemy. In this story, Brian had to fill in the gaps with his own assumptions when it would have been easy for his manager to instead send a note along with the calendar invite, explicitly stating the purpose of the meeting. The more you can demonstrate your intent to others, the less likely you are to run into these types of nightmare scenarios.
Gender Bias and the Power of Emojis
When it comes to digital communication, I feel like there’s an interesting gender dynamic at play in terms of how messages are conveyed. I ask Erica what she’s noted in her own research into digital body language and if that’s indeed the case.
“I will say that I don’t think that a lot of communication research has sped up with the times, be it gender non-binary or someone who has a pronoun of ‘he’ versus ‘she,’” Erica says. “All men and all women are not all the same, but some common things that have been shown in research is women often feel more pressured to soften up their messages with exclamations or emojis. Men don’t feel that pressure.”
But there is unfortunately a bias in the workplace on how women using this communication style is perceived, and this is something we need to become aware of in order to overcome. “Another study showed that a woman that was younger in the workplace that used multiple emojis in a workplace email, when compared to a man at any rank level in that same workplace, the woman would be more likely to be seen as incompetent. The man would be more likely to be seen as casual or friendly,” Erica adds. “There are new gender [and] digital body language biases that we must be aware of. I’m a big fan of breaking these barriers.”
So where does Erica stand on emojis? “I think that emojis are a very powerful tool to show the range of our emotive feelings when we can’t be face-to-face and we can’t signal those cues,” she says.
I wholeheartedly agree. 😺In the digital world, “body language hasn't disappeared, it is transformed. We now embed digital body language signals and cues that help bring back a sense of nuance and tone.” ~ Erica Dhawan. Hear more about digital body language on Punk Rock HR! Click To Tweet