Humans are experts at non-verbal communication. It is how we
understand what is going on, and how we signal our feelings to others, whether
intentionally or unintentionally.
So what happens when we are not in the same room together?
How can we read someone’s body language when we cannot see their body?
Erica Dhawan, author of the book, Digital Body Language:
how to build trust and connection no matter the distance, says “non-verbal
cues (facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, pitch) comprise nearly
three-quarters of how we understand one another in person.”
“The loss of non-verbal body cues is among the most overlooked
reasons why employees feel so disengaged from others… disengagement happens not
because people do not want to be empathetic but because with today’s tools,
they do not know how.”
The end result is that we often assume too much from tiny
clues, or misinterpret what we read and see.
“We all need to be aware that our digital body language emits
signals, deliberate or not,” says Dhawan.
In a digital workspace, your non-verbal communication comes
across through your presence on video calls, and your words and punctuation on
texts, chats and emails. Let us look at each of these:
Communication via online video
Without the normal cues, people will make assumptions based
on small actions.
A 2022 survey of 200 executives showed that 92 per cent
believed that employees who turned off their cameras during meetings were less
likely to have a long-term future at their company.
Then there is all the cues you are sending out even when you
have your camera on.
Research shows that even factors such as your camera angle and
your distance from the camera influence how likeable you seem.
Mi Ridell, an expert in body language based in Sweden says, “In
the digital setting we have to think about the set-up, and accept that it is a
new way to communicate.”
“If a colleague positions their camera below the chin,
forcing others to look up to them, we do not like them as much as if they are
on the same level.”
We need to learn new techniques, such as how to make eye contact
on a video call.
“The brain wants to look at the face [on the screen]” says
Ridell, “but you have to learn to look in the camera when it is your turn to
Yet at the same time, the usual rules of respect for others’
time still applies. When someone is talking, show you are listening. Lean in
rather than slouch back, smile when someone makes a joke, nod encouragingly
when someone tries to explain something.
Communication via writing
Do you end a text to colleagues with a full stop? It might
be seen as aggressive.
And how about exclamation marks? Do they show enthusiasm? Or
The tiny nuances of how we communicate via text, chat and
email can take on great significance.
According to the Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, the tone of our emails is misinterpreted 50 per cent of the
You cannot control how others interpret your punctuation and
emojis, but you can apply the basic rules of respect – even when you are busy.
Think about the impact of how long you take to respond to someone. Too long and
it can feel like you do not value them. Too fast and it can seem you are not
putting thought into it.
Gratitude and appreciation are still vital. Take the time to
thank people, sincerely and in your own words, for their contribution. You cannot
pop into their office at the end of the day to thank them, but you can send an
email or message at the end of the day to acknowledge their work, before
logging off for the evening.