Digital Body Language: Best Practices for Communicating with Co-workers on the Web

Analyze your digital communication with colleagues. What punctuation do you use and do you add emoji? Do you answer the other person right away, or do you usually apologize for the long answer? How do you behave during hangouts? Perhaps you sometimes look at your phone or accidentally interrupt your interlocutor?

All of these features form “digital body language”, according to leadership expert Erica Dhawan. She dedicated her new book to this concept. Like physical body language, digital body language displays mood and engagement in a conversation. Here are some tips Dhavan gives to those looking to build successful digital communication.

With the proliferation of remote work, the effectiveness of digital communication is becoming increasingly important. However, psychologists have long found out that misunderstandings often arise in this area. For example, Dhavan cites a 2005 study on the perception of sarcasm. It showed: 76% of the respondents were able to identify sarcasm by ear and only about 56% – in the written text.

Dhavan’s own research shows that such misunderstandings can seriously hinder productivity. She found that out of 2,000 employees and managers who participated in the survey, 70% believe that digital communication problems often impede effective work. This results in a loss of about four hours per week, which is 10% of a normal work week.

How do you fix this? Dhavan advises against setting strict rules for online etiquette. Instead, she recommends taking a closer look at your digital body language.

Written communication
Emoji and punctuation. According to Dhavan, these elements often help clarify the meaning of words, such as nodding the head and smiling in person. CAPITAL letters can indicate urgency or excitement, “?!?” – impatience and annoyance, and emojis are mutual recognition.

Research shows that approximately 60-80% of personal communication consists of non-verbal language: pace, pauses, gestures, and tone. All of these signals fill speech with energy and emotion. Dhawan believes punctuation and symbols in the digital world are new means of conveying these emotions.

Therefore, if appropriate, feel free to use less formal digital signals. And remember that the interlocutor may also expect them.

Other signals. Punctuation and emoji are part of a broader set of cues that set the tone for communication. Other signals include a greeting (presence or absence) and a signature (an emotionally detached “Best wishes” or an enthusiastic “Thank you”).

Changes in tone while communicating are another common cause of anxiety.

Sometimes this is done on purpose to show the transition to a more formal discussion. In personal communication, in this case, the interlocutor changes his tone of voice.
It is best to avoid an accidental change in tone, as it leads to unnecessary anxiety. Dhavan advises: if you do not understand why the interlocutor began to communicate differently, it is better, if possible, to contact him personally.
When communicating in writing – both by mail and in instant messengers – it is equally important to pay attention to the response time. Perhaps you want to understand the question first before answering it. However, such a delay can be perceived as a lack of interest. In such a case, Dhavan advises you to send a short reply indicating that you will consider the request shortly.

Dhavan also believes that it is very important to deduct the message before sending. This will make sure its meaning and emotional overtones are clear, which means you can save time by avoiding future misunderstandings.

Video calls
Video communication is fraught with other difficulties. Dhavan offers many tips to help you avoid them. For example, during group calls, you might ask participants to raise their hand if they want to speak. You can also appoint a moderator who will make sure that people do not deviate from the main topic.

Dhavan also strongly recommends not to be distracted by other things during video calls, including not using other gadgets. According to her, the interlocutor who is trying to make eye contact with you will definitely notice that you are looking at your phone. This shows a lack of enthusiasm and involvement.

Young businessman in a suit juggling with office supplies in his office, isolated on white background. Conceptual collage with phone, folders. The business, office, work concept.

If you know that, for example, you may receive another call, you should warn the interlocutors in advance. You can also explain the reason for leaving in the chat. This will demonstrate respect for everyone involved in the meeting.

Additional Tips
Regardless of which medium you use, Dhavan recommends considering two factors – closeness with the interlocutor and his working authority. This is true both for people at the top of the hierarchy and for those who are just starting a career.

The trainee should pay particular attention to the leader’s communication style so as not to accidentally shift to an inappropriate informal manner.
This is important for the leader as well: speech can show both a desire to ensure efficiency and a lack of interest in the well-being of employees.
Colleagues who work together a lot can move towards more informal digital body language. But even so, you need to make sure that you convey your thoughts correctly.

Equally important is the appreciation. In real life, it is shown with a handshake and a smile, but in online communication, the signals are less obvious or completely absent. To fix this, send an email to a colleague after the online meeting and thank them for their work. Alternatively, add a junior colleague to the client’s mailing list to acknowledge their contributions to the project.

Like any skill, digital body language takes practice. Pay more attention to how you communicate with colleagues and avoid discomfort and misunderstandings in the future.