One-on-one interactions leave little room for misinterpretations. Sadly, the same is not true when you communicate via texts, emails, and social media messages.
This creates anxiety and misunderstanding, leading to losing trust and connection in a relationship.
Imagine sending a mistimed emoji and getting an angry retort or a simple text fueling an argument. Our world requires an understanding of digital body language and physical body language.
And Erica Dhawan covers the former perfectly in her book Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust & Connection, No Matter the Distance.
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So, are you ready to know about digital body language and how to communicate effectively in the digital world?
Author Erica Dhawan is an American-born Indian who struggled with the cultural differences in the USA.
It took her several years to observe people, discern body language and learn to engage people different from her.
Erica says it’s the same when it’s about digital body language – we’re all immigrants.
The trouble is, although we’ve developed non-verbal cues and body language, it’s all reserved for face-to-face interactions.
What Is Digital Body Language?
Digital communications are comparatively new, despite the dot.com boom in the 20th century. To make things worse, remote work has increased misunderstanding, anxiety, and disengagement.
So, the chances of getting upset or confused after receiving a simple ‘Fine’ or a series of question marks are always high.
And it goes both ways.
Challenges of Digital Communications
Communication digitally doesn’t involve non-verbal cues and body language. This makes it hard to express care and appreciation.
For example, short delays of 1-2 seconds during a video call can give the impression that you’re less friendly, inattentive, or undisciplined.
At other times, your timing may not always be right.
So, if you delay responding to a message or email, it can be interpreted as a lack of respect. More importantly, humans have become comfortable with hiding behind screens.
This makes it easy to mask uncomfortable feelings behind emails and text, making it hard to connect authentically. Lastly, the challenge lies in dealing with the four sources of digital anxiety.
- Brevity – short and vague texts like ‘We need to talk’ or ‘this makes no sense’ can make you fret about where the other person is coming from.
- Passive-aggressiveness – phrases like ‘As I explained before’ or ‘just a gentle reminder’ may feel harmless. But they may be interpreted as a criticism of someone’s lack of attention or response.
- Slow responses – not receiving a reply to your email or text can make you wonder whether the other person received your message and why they didn’t respond.
Some people even regard not receiving a digital response in 1-2 days as being ignored for a week.
- Formality – being formal can make you seem cold or unfriendly. On the other hand, being too informal can make you look careless or even disrespectful.
Here’s how you can reduce anxiety by managing the sources of confusion and being mindful of your messages.
Utilize the Trust and Power Matrix to choose a response.
- When the other party has more power, reply faster, with clarity, and use formal channels.
- For close relationships, you can be concise and casual but still be clear.
If you receive a confusing message, consider whether the confusion lies in:
- The medium
- The tone
- The message
You can also switch to a different medium, like making a phone call instead of replying via email.
Remember to ask clarifying questions, like ‘what do you need me to do and by when?’
Lastly, assume good intent on their part.
And never respond when you’re upset.
Pro-tip: establish guidelines on who to cc, when to use titles and hierarchical signals, etc. Align your formality level according to the person you’re communicating with.
How to Master the Elements of Digital Body Language
Start by taking cues from the physical body language and translating them into explicit expressions of digital body language.
During a physical interaction, we interpret the tone of voice, body language, eye contact, and how people interact. You can interpret digital body language with explicit cues, such as medium, symbols, punctuation, and timing.
The choice of medium determines the level of priority.
So, you must choose a medium based on:
- How urgent and important the message is
- Who you’re communicating with
Use this guide to create norms:
- Use video calls for internal or external meetings.
- Always schedule in advance
- Specify if cameras need to be turned on
- Mute when not speaking
- Use emails for important, timely, directional info or as a record of discussions.
- Reply in less than 24 hours, depending on the topic.
- Indicate the topic and response type in the subject.
- Don’t use emails for social chit-chats or instant replies.
- Use Slack, Skype, and IM for time-sensitive and urgent messages.
- Reply ASAP.
- Keep it short and straightforward.
- Use with less than six people.
- Set your availability status.
- Use text messages for time-sensitive and urgent messages.
- Choose this medium when other channels are unavailable.
- Reply in less than 30 minutes during office hours.
While choosing these mediums, remember to switch mediums based on mutually decided ones. You can also use multiple channels if the issue is urgent and based on your relationship with the other person.
Remember that symbols and punctuations deliver emotional expression when considering these two elements.
So, use exclamation marks to emphasize something, but avoid using multiple.
Using all CAPS is a big no, as it comes across as shouting.
As for emojis, they’re the new norm and can be used when appropriate. So, choose emojis that can’t be misinterpreted. But never use them to replace entire sentences.
The 4 Laws of Digital Body Language
Law 1 – Value Visibly
Show respect and appreciation with appropriate digital body language.
- Never rush to reply
- Refer to details
- Write clearly
- Proofread your messages
- Ask for clarification
- Respect people’s time and schedule
Law 2 – Communicate Carefully
Be as clear as possible, whether through words or digital body language. Let your team know:
- the specific goals for each project
- the conclusions and next steps for each meeting
- the norms for medium selection and response times
- and what’s being asked of them.
Doing this minimizes ambiguity and misunderstanding, so people can work effectively and efficiently.
You must write clear messages that people can understand. Use the right channel based on three factors:
These factors define people’s understanding.
For example, choose:
- Text, IM, or group chats for short, simple responses that don’t require context.
- Emails, phone, and group call for lengthier messages or back-and-forth exchanges.
- Video calls, presentations, or blogs for topics requiring multi-media materials.
Law 3 – Collaborate Confidently
Give each person a voice to achieve synergy. This helps people feel safe and supported while creating role and goal clarity.
Your part is to be in the loop.
- Know what the other departments are doing.
- Establish norms for inter-department interactions.
- Consider how various components are linked in a project.
Lastly, demonstrate your executive presence digitally by setting clear roles, deadlines, and expectations.
Law 4 – Trust Totally
The last law is built on the previous three laws, which Erica refers to as pillars. Build teams that move faster and further.
Do this by creating psychological safety where people tell the truth, keep their promises, and have faith in the organization.
All of this helps improve performance.
- When you value others visibly, you create a norm about treating people with respect and appreciation.
- When you communicate carefully, you remove unnecessary misunderstandings.
- When people trust that plans and promises will be kept, they invest their time and effort to collaborate confidently.
When all this is said and done, the final question arises:
How to Communicate Effectively Across Differences?
Differences exist between gender, generations, and cultures. These differences lead to people taking things and expressing themselves differently.
Digital media amplifies things.
You can balance your unique personality and adapt to social expectations. Tailor your digital body language to the context and recipient, just like learning to speak multiple dialects.
For gender differences,
Engage both genders differently. But use inclusive language and visuals.
For generational differences,
Understand that digital body language can be different for digital natives and digital adapters.
Digital natives grew up in the digital era. They’re tech-savvy but inadequate at physical body language.
Digital adapters learned digital body language as adults, so they’re better at physical body language than digital ones.
You must also tailor your digital body language according to the context and recipient.
For cultural differences,
Know the difference between high-context and low-context cultures.
In high-context cultures, people rely on implicit and nonverbal cues. Intonation and silences speak volumes to these people more than spoken or written words.
In low-context cultures, people spell things explicitly in verbal and written communication. As a result, their messages are clear, direct, and efficient.
And that’s the crux of digital body language right there – to be as clear and concise as possible and avoid miscommunications.
The better your fluency with digital body language, the better your chances to connect and relate to others. If you want to learn more tips and tricks, business strategies, and life lessons, read more blogs by VideoMonks.