Body Language in the Digital Age

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 speak.”

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 desperation?

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 time.

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.