What Is Digital Body Language?
These days, we don’t talk the talk or even walk the talk. We write the talk.
Texts, emails, instant messages, and video calls are ultimately visual forms of communication. What’s more, each of us has different expectations and instincts about whether it’s appropriate to send a text or an email, when to look in the camera during a video call, how long to wait before we write someone back, and how to write a digital thank-you or apology without seeming sloppy or insincere. Our word choices, response times, video meeting styles, email sign-offs, and even our email signatures create impressions that can either enhance or wreck our closest relationships in the workplace (not to mention in our personal lives).
Today, roughly 70 percent of all communication among teams is virtual. We send around 306 billion emails every day, with the average person sending 30 emails daily. According to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50 percent of the time the “tone” of our emails is misinterpreted. Fifty percent! Imagine saying “I love you” to your partner, but half the time their response is “Yeah, right.”
Today, “emotional intelligence” and “empathy” have become buzzwords. They are discussed at roundtables. They are part of every mainstream education curriculum. Leaders have sold us on the idea that seeing situations clearly from others’ perspectives can transform leadership styles, work cultures, and business strategies.
Why Then A Crisis Of Misunderstanding At Work?
Obviously, a big problem is that reading emotion within the digital nature of the modern workplace is difficult. When the concept of emotional intelligence was popularized, the digital era was in its infancy. Email was a barely unwrapped toy. The very first smartphones were thick slabs and rarely appeared at meetings. Texting was what European teenagers did. And video calls were a foreign species. Today, many organizations and communities exist exclusively behind a screen. We’ve shifted the way we create connections and, consequently, how we work with our colleagues as well as our customers, community members, and audiences.
Digital Body Language is for people whose bosses and colleagues drone on and on about teamwork but never seem to do what’s necessary to facilitate it. It’s for anyone swamped with in-person meetings, conference calls, emails, texts, and social media platforms, those who have thrown up their hands and decided to just set it and forget it.
- Traditional Body Language: keep your palms open; uncross your arms and legs; smile and nod.
- Digital Body Language: use language that is direct with clear subject lines; end emails with a friendly gesture (Text me if you need anything! Hope this helps.); never bcc anyone without warning; mirror the sender’s use of emojis and/or informal punctuation.
- Traditional Body Language: lean in with your body as another person is talking; uncross your arms and legs; smile; nod; make direct eye contact.
- Digital Body Language: prioritize timely responses; send responses that answer all questions or statements in the previous message (not just one or two); send a simple Got it! or Received if the message doesn’t merit a longer response; don’t use the mute button as a license to multitask; use positive emojis like thumbs-up or smiley faces.
- Traditional Body Language: speak quickly; raise your voice; express yourself physically by jumping up and down or tapping your fingers on your desk.
- Digital Body Language: use exclamation points and capitalization; prioritize quick response times; send multiple messages in a row without getting a response first; use positive emojis (smiley faces, thumbs-up, high fives).
- Traditional Body Language: raise your voice; speak quickly; point your finger (or make any other exaggerated gesture).
- Digital Body Language: use all caps paired with direct language or sentences that end in multiple exclamation marks; opt for a phone call or a meeting over a digital message; skip greetings; use formal closings, Reply All, or Cc to direct attention; issue the same message on multiple digital channels simultaneously.
Pillar #1 Value Visibly
READING CAREFULLY IS THE NEW LISTENING
The problem, according to research done by linguist Naomi Baron, is that we comprehend less when reading on a screen than we do when reading print. We devote less time to reading an onscreen passage, are more inclined to multitask, and tend to skim and search instead of reading slowly and carefully
One big reason we read so poorly online is that typically we’re moving at lightning speed. Instead of taking the time to go carefully through messages, we race through them toward an indeterminate finish line (one that resets every morning). Our need for speed leads to exchanges like the one above—the digital equivalent of talking over each other.
A lot of our speed, and our anxiety around speed, is artificial, which ends up costing us accuracy, clarity, and respect. But even if you really are too busy to get back to people immediately, there are ways to show you aren’t blowing them off. You can show respect, for example, by sending a quick note (e.g., Got it!) to let them know you got their text or email and are on it. You could give a ballpark estimate as to when you’ll be able to respond at greater length.
WRITING CLEARLY IS THE NEW EMPATHY
The CMO of a pharmaceutical company was communicating with her team about preparing a presentation for a board meeting. She shared a quick idea over email—Do you think we should add more research on oncology to the presentation? In her own mind, she was convinced she’d said, Let’s add an extra two bullet points on this slide—but her brain was playing tricks on her. Two weeks later, her team had spent 30 hours or so preparing 40 slides on oncology research. The CMO had no idea the deck was coming and had frankly forgotten about the two bullet points she thought she’d proposed. But her team had gotten used to responding in full to her requests, and they seldom asked questions. Which made them feel even more devalued when their 40 slides turned into two bullet points on a slide.
Bottom line: if you’re the boss, be mindful of writing “think-alouds,” and separate them from true marching orders. If you’re on the receiving end, don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions up front. A clarifying question is less embarrassing and time-consuming than a poor work product down the line.
Pillar #2 Communicate Carefully
THINK BEFORE YOU TYPE
Once we press Send, we cede control over where our words end up. A private email we send to an acquaintance might show up later in a post on his or her public Facebook page. Messages and posts can be copied, forwarded, altered, and updated in ways that distort their fundamental meaning, not to mention translated instantly (and not always correctly) into almost any language. An email can show up from a customer or client without us knowing that our boss’s boss is included as a Bcc.
All this means one thing: we need to be very careful.
The first rule of Communicating Carefully? Slow down. Try this think-before-you-type checklist:
- Who needs to be included on this message?
- What do I want the receiver(s) to do after they read this message?
- What context or information do they need?
- What is the appropriate tone?
- When is the best time to send this message?
- What is the best channel to convey this message?
- How comfortable would I be if this message is screenshotted, forwarded, or otherwise shared? What can I do to change it? Or should I save this for a phone call or face-to-face meeting?
BE TONE-DEFT, NOT TONE-DEAF
Tone—the overall attitude, or character, of a piece of writing—is another key component of Communicating Carefully. Ask yourself: Who is the recipient? Who is the audience? What’s the context here? Tailor your communication accordingly
Naturally, this means anticipating how your words are likely to come across to others. When you write, text, or call your boss or colleagues, for instance, it’s best to keep your tone neutral until you develop a rapport that would indicate differently. Focus on being informative, or persuasive. Edit yourself so that you stick to the essential facts.
Consider the following email message: THIS IS NOT GOOD, NEEDS A LOT OF WORK!!!! It sounds like Zeus ordering a hit job on a lesser god—all caps, terse sentence structure, and a crazy picket fence of exclamation marks. If someone was trying to tear your head off, then mission accomplished. But if that same person was trying to convey respect, whoops!
Pillar #3 Collaborate Confidently
STAY IN THE LOOP
Collaborating Confidently is about keeping all relevant parties informed and up-to-date while checking in constantly to ensure ongoing clarity in all components.
Collaborating Confidently begins by understanding what other departments do—and establishing clear norms on how they interact with one another.
Caroline, a team leader at a pharmaceutical company, designates “project team members” and “project advisors.” Team members are involved in decision-making and maintaining day-to-day activity, while project advisors provide expertise on specific subject matter and are only included on meeting summaries (keeping them in the loop) or in one-on-one conversations. Project team members who can’t attend a meeting are responsible for appointing a proxy to make decisions for them.
Assigning these roles has reduced Caroline’s 30-person brainstorming meetings into 6-person discussions. Things now get done much more quickly and efficiently.
FIGHT THOUGHTLESS DEADLINES
The word “deadline” can be traced back to the American Civil War—who knew? Back then, prisoner-of-war camps had boundaries known as “dead-lines”—prisoners who crossed them would be killed. In short, deadlines were serious back then.
In some places they still are. In a manufacturing plant, for example, a missed deadline can cause chaos for countless stakeholders along the supply chain. But in other settings, there is less at stake in missing a precise deadline, and deadlines are understood to be rough—calibrated for “noonish,” “ASAP,” or “first thing in the morning.”
When people are collaborating from different places and time zones, observing disparate working hours, overcoming language barriers, and more, meeting deadlines becomes much more difficult for all. And so it’s important for managers to have a system in place that creates realistic deadlines, clarifies the consequences of missing them, and considers contingencies for when (inevitably) something goes wrong.
ELIMINATE CHRONIC CANCELLATIONS
Canceling meetings is a real problem in the workplace. It’s getting worse too, since we’re all so overscheduled and overworked (at least we think we are). It’s easy to book time on someone else’s Outlook calendar—why don’t we just do it now, and bow out later if we have to?
But chronically canceling meetings can have company-wide repercussions, including lowered morale, lost team brainstorming time, and a general loss of confidence in leadership.
PRACTICE PATIENT RESPONSES
Digital hastiness can also foster groupthink and undermine team creativity. Six yes emails in a chain make it harder for the seventh person to say no. A rushed “Does everyone agree?” at the end of a video meeting doesn’t feel like a true invitation for discord.
Take a few additional moments of pause to re-read what you’ve just written. Are you saying what you think you’re saying? For all its drawbacks, asynchronous communication gives us time to process our words instead of just blurting them out. Needless to say, this is a very real advantage. Don’t automatically choose immediacy over a thoughtful response that can be all the more valuable.
Pillar #4 Trust Totally
MODEL THE BEHAVIOR YOU WANT TO SEE IN YOUR TEAMS
What you model as a leader ultimately shows up in the culture of your teams. If you’re not clear when you assign tasks and responsibilities and you later chastise your team for failing to deliver on what you wanted, you erode trust. If someone challenges your idea and you shut that person down immediately, you further erode a company-wide net of psychological safety while giving your team implicit permission to shut down other members as well.
CREATE PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY
Psychological safety means being able to speak your mind without fearing any negative consequences to your self-image, status, or career. Without psychological safety in place in a company, no one will ever speak up.
For this to work, it’s essential that leaders follow Satya Nadella’s lead in addressing mistakes or bad ideas: criticize the action instead of the person while giving your team your unwavering support.
ALLOW YOURSELF TO BE VULNERABLE
The more emphasis a leader places on vulnerability and learning, the easier it is for team members to speak up, ask questions, and embrace the discomfort of uncertainty. Communicate simple statements—“I may be missing something—I need to hear from you”; “I’ll admit that operations is not my strong suit, and I’m open to your suggestions”—that encourage your teams to speak up, and that also remind them how much you value their contributions. When someone offers feedback, accept it with grace: “Point well taken. We used to be a lot better at this and we lost sight of staff communications. I promise this will change.”
By now you might be wondering, If I take all the necessary steps to initiate these four pillars into my team, what exactly can I expect?
The answer? You can expect an organization that is resilient and adaptive, one that comes together in tough times as well as in good times.
- When you Value Visibly: Team members show up at work with excitement and drive. They’re motivated to make meaningful contributions and innovations, prompting employee engagement, retention, and productivity.
- When you Communicate Carefully: Teams present a single, united front, get projects done quickly and efficiently, and feel safe bringing up potentially groundbreaking ideas.
- When you Collaborate Confidently: You create organization-wide alignment on common goals without misunderstandings or petty disagreements, leading to cross-team collaboration, innovation, customer loyalty, and marketing effectiveness.
- When you Trust Totally: You create high levels of organizational faith, where people tell the truth, keep their word, and deliver on their commitments, in turn creating client/customer sales growth and cost-effectiveness.