Digital communication can be exhausting. Take Jack, a mid-level manager, who just got an email from his boss. It bugs him — or is he overthinking things? The last sentence — “That’ll be fine.” — ends in a period. It seems to dominate the screen, a black bead, a micro-bomb, lethal, suggestive and — Jack would swear — disapproving. Boss is angry. But is he really? Did Jack screw up? If so, how? Is he reading into things? If he’s not, how can he work for a boss who’s so oblivious about the implications of a period?
When punctuation and shorthand set us off into bouts of uncertainty, self-doubt, anxiety, anger, self-hatred, and mistrust, we can be sure we’re living in unmapped times.
None of us needs a linguistics degree to know that the ways we communicate meaning today are more confusing than ever. Why? Well, our understanding of body language is almost exclusively informed by face-to-face interactions.
No traditional expert in body language could have predicted that, today, the majority of our communications would be virtual. Contemporary communication relies more than ever on how we say something rather than on what we say. That is, our digital body language. When the internet came along, everyone was given a dais and a microphone, but no one was told how to use them. We all just picked things up as we went along. And the mistakes we’ve made along the way have had real consequences in business.
Each of us has different expectations and instincts about whether we should send a text versus an email, when to call someone, how long to wait before we write someone back, and how to write a digital thank-you or apology without seeming insincere. These seemingly small choices create impressions that can either enhance or wreck our closest relationships.
Most workplaces today minimize the conditions necessary to foster clear communication, leading to widespread distrust, resentment, and frustration. There are more far-flung teams. There are fewer face-to-face interactions. There is virtually no body language to read.
So the question remains: How can we stay connected when a screen divides us?
The answer lies in understanding the cues and signals that we’re sending with our digital body language, and learning to tailor them to create clear, precise messages. What was implicit in traditional body language now has to be explicit with digital body language.
By embedding a real understanding of digital body language into your workplace, communication processes can provide both the structure and the tools that support a silo-breaking, trust-filled environment. This skill, in turn, will lead to enormous efficiencies and a new communication ideal, one where the language and punctuation we use across all mediums is careful, conscious, and considered, and we’re always mindful of how our recipients might respond.
Below are three examples of basic digital body language signals and cues we send out every day that you can learn to employ and perfect in your own life:
The Medium Is the Message
All communication channels are not created equal. Knowing how and when to use each one depends on the context. Every channel brings with it a set of underlying meanings and subtexts, and knowing how to navigate this array of hidden meanings is a telltale mark of digital savviness and — ultimately — professionalism.
If you’re stuck, ask yourself: How important or urgent is your message? And to whom are you communicating? What’s better: email, Slack, the phone, or a text?
And remember: You’re not bound to one or two communication channels. Switching between channels is a good way to indicate a shift in urgency, or even to denote the closeness of a relationship.
Punctuation and Symbols — the New Measure of Emotion
In our digital world, our screens filter out the non-verbal signals and cues that make up 60 to 80 percent of face-to-face communication, forcing us to adapt the emotional logic of computers. We’re rendered cue-less.
By way of compensation, our communication style relies on punctuation for impact. In an effort to infuse our texts with tone and to clarify our feelings, we might use exclamation marks, capital letters, or ellipses, or else hit the “like” or “love” button on messages we receive. But instead of clarity, sometimes our reliance on punctuation and symbols can generate more confusion.
My advice when it comes to punctuation and symbols: Use them judiciously. If you’re worried about your digital tone, one way to clarify your feelings digitally is through the direct, easy-to-understand language of emojis. While emojis may be a learning curve for some, they can be critical to enhancing workplace efficiency and cultivating a corporate culture of optimal clarity.
Timing — the New Measure of Respect
Face-to-face interactions require that both parties be available at the same time. This is less possible today, with most of us scrambling to keep up with our various inboxes.
This often means that communication happens at a slower pace. And in a digitally reliant world, the slightest pause between messages takes on an almost operatic meaning.
The thing is, most of the time, a non-answer means nothing at all; the other person is simply tied up, doing something else, didn’t notice she’d gotten a text, had her volume turned off, or forgot where she put her phone.
Still, we can always help ease anxieties around timing expectations by encouraging communication norms and best practices for your office. For example, leaders can mandate a response time for email — within the hour, particularly if it’s time-sensitive or client-facing — to ensure team-wide accountability.
With hardly any face-to-face interactions with colleagues or classmates these days, there is virtually no body language to read. Understanding digital body language is essential for those of us who are committed to making strong relationships and making a mark, even in the swell of conference calls, emails, texts, and Zoom engagements. Not only can it enhance your interpersonal interactions and liberate you from the fear and worry that digital communication inspires, but it can give you a competitive advantage on your team, grounded in transparency and empathy.
Erica Dhawan W07 is a leading expert on 21st century collaboration and innovation. She is an award-winning keynote speaker and the author of the new book Digital Body Language.