Hey!!! How's your digital body language???😟

online communication Jul 09, 2021
How is your digital body language?

Are all of your languages working as you would wish?

Most of us are comfortable with the differences between written language (grander, more formal) and spoken language (shorter sentences, more chatty). And most folks understand that body language can subtly change - or undermine - the words that come out of our mouths.

But what about the fourth language we use?

I’m talking about our digital language. That’s the language we use in emails, or on social media, or in video calls. And, yes, there is a physical component to digital language. In fact, Digital Body Language is the title of a new book by leadership expert Erica Dhawan.

Think about your last business email. Did the sentences end with full stops? Or multiple exclamation marks? Did you use ALL CAPS for emphasis? Or did you forgo caps and punctuation? Or did you use emojis to carry your message home?

And on your last Zoom calls were you really focused on the speakers? Or were you busy checking your phone and email? Did you let others speakers finish their thoughts, or did you jump in quickly to get your voice heard?

According to Dhawan, all of the above are examples of our digital body language… the subtle clues that signal our mood, our true feelings, and the level of our engagement. We can say we are listening, but our body can tell a different story.

To validate her theories, Dhawan surveyed 2000 employees and managers. And here’s one stand-out statistic from that research:

  • 70% said poor digital communication was a frequent barrier to their work, costing them four hours of wasted effort every week… “10% of a normal working week,” says Dhawan.

So how do you avoid messages that confuse rather than clarify?

Instead of offering rules, Dhawan suggests we focus on mindfulness, and making sure our digital body language is intentional and appropriate.

What about emojis, and all those question marks and exclamation marks?

Dhawan says - contrary to many language stylists - emojis and punctuation points can help clarify the meaning of the words used, just as the nod of a head or a smile or smirk would do.

ALL CAPS can be an effective way of expressing urgency or excitement, just as ?!? can express impatience, and a fist-bump emoji can express appreciation.

“Research shows that roughly 60% to 80% of our face-to-face communication is non-verbal language, such as the pacing, pauses, gestures and tone. All of these cues bring energy and emotional nuance to our message,” says Dhawan. “In many ways, punctuation and the use of symbols in a digital world are the new means of signalling that emotion.” 

Leaving aside emojis and punctuation, there are other factors that can affect the tone of your email.

For example, do you start with a friendly ‘Hello’, or dive straight into the substance of the message? And do you end with an enthusiastic ‘Thanks!’ or a more formal ‘Regards.’

If in doubt, just resist the impulse to hit send too soon. Read over your message carefully. Make sure the meaning - and the emotional subtext - are crystal clear.

What about those difficulties with Zoom calls?

Dhawan says we need to accept that video calls can be awkward, with screens freezing and problems with audio. She suggests agreeing a process for interjections. Perhaps ask participants to raise a hand to indicate they want to speak, or have a moderator who can select speakers who have expressed - physically or via the chat box - a desire to contribute.

Resist the temptation to multi-task while on a video call. “It is so obvious if you are busy looking down at your phone, when others are trying to make video eye contact with you,” she says. You may think no one will notice, but it signals a lack of engagement and enthusiasm.

If you want to dive deeper into digital body language, David Robson wrote an extended article for the BBC website based on the work of Erica Dhawan. It’s well worth a read, and you can find it here.

Robson concludes his article with this thought: “Like any skill, perfecting your digital body language will take practice – but a few moments of thought each day may save hours of anxiety and confusion in the days and weeks ahead.” 

Erica Dhawan’s book Digital Body Language, is out now from St Martin’s Press.