What Digital Body Language Means in Our New World of Work
How many times have you had an instant negative reaction to an email or text? Did you misread the person’s message? Are they upset? Did they misunderstand you?
When we’re in person, nonverbal cues like tone of voice, facial expressions, and eye contact help us interpret meaning. But when we communicate virtually, we lose the context of body language. Without nonverbal cues, we’re quick to make assumptions (and we all know how that goes.)
Now more than ever, while so many of us are working from home, we need to pay better attention to how we’re expressing ourselves—how quickly we respond to messages, what we use for our email signature, who we cc: on an email, even our punctuation, abbreviations, and emojis.
All of this is “digital body language.”
You probably do all these things without thinking twice, but just like your physical body language, your digital body language needs to match your message.
Here are three tips from my course Digital Body Language that will help you land your digital message the way you intend.
1. Choose your channel
It’s important to develop habits that show a healthy respect for other people’s time and privacy.
While having multiple communication channels makes it easier to communicate, using the wrong channel at the wrong time may cause others to see you as unsophisticated or lacking empathy.
All channels are not created equal. Each implies different levels of priority. To choose the right channel, consider four factors:
Length: If you have a long update, like a detailed brief prior to a board meeting, lean into a medium like email. If you have an urgent (but short) team update, use a messaging channel.
Complexity: If you’re making a complex argument, or need to share a bigger idea, select a medium such as phone or video chat. This gives you the opportunity to get feedback quickly, bounce ideas back and forth, and build trust.
Familiarity: If you have a close relationship with someone, reaching out with a text may be a welcome disruption. Texting has become more commonplace for work conversations, but don’t assume it’s okay. Always ask if text is an acceptable channel for the other person.
Discipline: No one wants to receive a phone call, three texts, and an email with the same request. Err on the side of restraint and don't use multiple channels to send the same message.
2. Use punctuation and emojis to convey feeling
Communicating your authentic feelings is difficult with digital communication. Do you want to express appreciation? Align your team on a controversial issue? Express confusion with someone who is being unclear?
The most boring marks, periods, and exclamations have become inflated as some of the most powerful tools in language to express ourselves. Here are a few examples:
The exclamation point: The exclamation point used to be used only in informal writing or comics, but now it’s pervasive in expressing urgency and excitement. I think one exclamation point conveys basic human warmth and energy. Two signal excitement. Three signal enthusiasm. Four signal giddiness, sarcasm, wit, or even anger.
The period: Periods used to be just about basic punctuation. They simply ended a sentence. Now periods can signal anger and even fury unlike any other punctuation tool. Multiple periods, known as dot dot dot can also mean an unfinished thought. Get this, a recent study showed that even with identical messages, responses with periods at the end seem less sincere than those that didn't.
The question mark: while the question mark still represents genuine interest, it can also signal interrogation, interest, or anger. Using multiple question marks inflates the meaning. One signals an honest question. Two signal confusion (e.g. What do you mean?) Three signal frustration (e.g. I don't understand you.) Four can signal frustration (e.g. What are you getting at here? Where is the document?)
Emojis: Emojis are one of the most powerful cues of tone in digital communication. When you add a smiley face to “Thanks a lot,” it comes across as more sincere. In remote work, the lines have blurred between our professional and personal lives, causing us to more openly use emojis to infuse emotion in our written communication. Still, emojis are best to accentuate, not replace our words. They may not be as universal as we believe with our colleagues.
3. Don’t confuse brevity with clarity
Being brief doesn’t always mean you’re being clear.
For example, if your boss sends you an email that says “we should talk,” you could interpret that in multiple ways. One-word responses like “fine,” “sure,” “OK” can leave you perplexed. And if someone sends multiple question marks instead of asking an actual question, then you’re really in the dark.
While a brief email may be convenient for you, it can have a negative impact on the person receiving it. When we take shortcuts and leave out context, we unintentionally create misunderstanding and extra steps, which can tarnish a relationship.
For managers especially, ask yourself three questions before sending an email.
Am I being clear about what I need? Take a moment to provide important background needed for the recipient.
Did I include the right people? Make sure it’s clear why the message is meaningful to the person or the group of people.
Am I clear about what I expect and next steps? Make sure you've established a clear call to action and give your team an appropriate and clear time when you expect an email back.
One of my favorite communication hacks is to create acronyms for my teams. For example, NNTR means “no need to respond” in emails. 4H in subject lines means I need this in four hours, or 2D means I need this in two days.
When you’re aware of your digital body language, these simple steps can go a long way in helping you communicate more clearly and build healthier, stronger relationships in your professional and personal lives. And right now, we can all use that greater connection. Let’s make it happen.
For more courses like this check out:
Executive Presence on Video Conference Calls with Jessica Chen
Communicating with Teams with Daisy Lovelace
Improving Your Listening Skills with Dorie Clark