A thoughtful review of Erica Dhawan’s book Digital Body Language and how you can make better choices in your digital communication.
Have you experienced the anxiety of waiting for a response as the messenger app says someone is typing? Followed quickly by that sinking feeling when no message is sent and the typing has stopped. Or perhaps you’ve received a short text message saying “what does this mean?????” or “we need to talk” or “CAN U SEND ME THAT TODAY.” Receiving digital communications like these can fray the trust between the people sending and receiving them. So what should we do? I recently finished reading Erica Dhawan’s Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust & Connection No Matter the Distance – a book filled with actionable tips to help you get it right when it comes to communicating and connecting in our digitally connected world.
As an entrepreneur and digital marketing agency owner, I frequently communicate with clients and collaborators through digital channels: email, Slack messages, Zoom video calls, text messages, What’s App messages, and more. I’ve experienced feelings of anxiety when I can’t understand what a client’s message means or you think that their message indicates they are upset, angry, or even worse – ready to leave you for good. I found Dhawan’s insights valuable to improve my digital communications and digital body language. I’d like to share some of the ones I’ve found most helpful and recommend that you pick up your own copy of the book to learn more!
Traditional Body Language vs Digital Body Language
When you communicate with someone face-to-face you don’t just get a chance to hear their words, you also have all the non-verbal cues or body language that impact your understanding. Even when you’re speaking to someone on the phone, you can get cues like tone of voice, volume, and how quickly they are speaking to communicate more than just the words.
With digital body language, the cues are different, replaced by using all caps, sending short emotion-free messages, adding emojis, or waiting a significant amount of time to respond. In fact, oftentimes messages exchanged digitally through texts, instant messaging, social media, and email can be easily misinterpreted. Even communication through video calls can be difficult – if two people try to talk at the same time, if someone opts to keep their camera off, or if someone appears to be multitasking even though they may just have you pulled up larger on another monitor that is not where their webcam may be.
Rather than sending a quick response, it can be helpful to take a step back and ask yourself:
Is my message clear?
Is there another way that the recipient might interpret my message?
If my message is confusing, is there another medium I could use to convey it more clearly?
Am I unintentionally taking advantage of power dynamics to send this message with brevity, passive-aggressiveness, or with a lack of formality?
Making Better Choices in Digital Communication
With so much opportunity for misinterpretation, how can you make better choices with your digital communication?
Here are five considerations:
Choose the right medium to indicate priority. Whether you are choosing to email, Slack message, text message, phone call, or a Zoom meeting can indicate quickly to someone the importance of your message. Choosing email may be best if your message includes a lot of detail that someone will need to refer to again at another time. A Slack message if someone is showing that they are available might make sense to get a quick response and resolution. A text message may be a good alternative to Slack if you are looking for a quick response and someone is not at their computer. A phone call outside of normal business hours can indicate urgency or cause anxiety if they miss your call and you don’t leave them a voicemail. A meeting invitation without context sent in the middle of the night for early the next morning may cause someone to think they’re in trouble. Taking time to choose your medium wisely or working with your team to determine communications standards can help alleviate any misunderstandings. In my contracts with clients, I set a section that details how to get a hold of me in case of urgency and needs after regular working hours. Taking time to set communications standards can help you avoid misunderstandings in the long run.
Show emotion through the length of response, punctuation, symbols, and capitalization. When responding to someone’s message, saying “okay….” or “k” or “Ok!” or “kk 🙂” all hold different meanings. The first can indicate disagreement, the second can indicate indifference, the third can indicate excitement, and the fourth can indicate someone liking your message. Using emojis and punctuation can substantially change the meaning of messages in digital communications. Women are much more likely than men to use exclamation points in their communications. Both genders use emojis – though depending on the culture of the person you are communicating with emoji meanings can differ. If you like to use ellipsis…that can be taken as passive-aggressive, indicating hesitation, confusion, apathy, or a desire to talk about something later. Meanwhile, there are generational differences in the meaning of the ellipsis – older generations are more comfortable using ellipsis than exclamation points, while younger digital natives use an ellipsis to convey sarcasm. Question marks are another symbol that can have extra meaning. A single ? indicate genuine interest, more than one moves towards confusion, add a few more we move towards frustration, and beyond that, it might indicate anger. While responding or writing a message in all lowercase letters in a text message or email can indicate less formality between you and the recipient, it can also mean you responded quickly indicating some type of urgency. Meanwhile, if you write something in ALL CAPS, it can be taken as yelling, signaling anger, or urgency.
Indicate respect by timing your response. Digital communication is typically done asynchronously, meaning we can respond when it is convenient for us. This can, however, create anxiety as we wait for someone’s response and ask ourselves, is everything ok? In general, it is considered acceptable to respond to emails within 24 hours. If you know that completing what was asked in the email will take longer than the 24-hour period, it is also reasonable to respond that you read the email and will complete the task at hand by the deadline. With text messages and instant messages that are sent during normal business hours, responding quickly is expected so you are thought of as rude or offensive. My rule of thumb is to respond with an emoji to confirm the message has been seen. Also, if possible instead of going back and forth on messages, it can be a lot easier to pick up the phone to hash out details more quickly. When messages are being sent outside of normal business hours, I frequently will respond during the off hours, however, schedule the response to come back through during business hours the next day. This lets you respond when it is convenient for you, however, not creating the expectation that someone needs to respond back to you after-hours.
Leverage the To, Cc, Bcc, and Reply All functions to indicate inclusion. Who you put in the To, Cc, and Bcc line all indicate different roles for those who are receiving the message. As a rule of thumb, I include in the To line anyone who has action items in an email or who I really want to make sure pays attention to it. The people in the Cc line are people I want to keep in the loop and do not necessarily need to take action. Adding someone to the Bcc line can create deeper meanings for a message – it can create friction if the persons in the To or Cc line have no idea that person is included, also if you truly want them to know what is going on, they won’t be able to see the responses on the email unless you add them in again. Then there is Reply All, sometimes everyone does need to be on a response, however, you may consider not hitting Reply All for a one-line Thank You message that then clogs people’s inboxes.
Protect your digital persona and identity. Dhawan asks us to consider the four main components of our digital persona – Your Name, Your Email Address, Your Profile Picture, and Your Search Results. Choosing how you will show up online is important, do you use your full name or a nickname? Using your name consistently is important, it will allow people to search for you easily across multiple platforms. Using a professional email address is important. If you are still utilizing an email address you created on Yahoo, Hotmail, or AOL, you might be taken less seriously than the one you use on Gmail. If your email address includes a name that is not your real name or includes a combination of numbers that can also seem unprofessional. Are you a business owner? Even if you do not have a website created, I strongly advise you to get a domain name for your business and create a professional email address. I receive emails from salespeople claiming to be members of an organization that are sending me that email from a Gmail account – they immediately lose credibility. Don’t let your email address lead to an immediate “No” or “Not interested” response from the recipient. Use a professional profile picture on all of your accounts. This means, don’t take a photo of you at a concert and cut out the background or a selfie on vacation. I recommend taking a photo in front of a neutral background with good lighting, smiling, and showing that you are warm and approachable. Using a high-quality photo shows that you are serious about your brand and your business. Take a moment to do a quick search on Google, or your search engine of choice, for your name. If you are spending time trying to increase your brand awareness, you’ll see how those efforts are performing. If you happen to see any negative reviews or information it will give you an opportunity to manage your reputation. I do a quarterly search to see what’s showing up out there about me and my business.
The Four Laws of Digital Body Language
Dhawan reveals the four laws of digital body language as essential to effective digital communication: Value Visibly, Communicate Carefully, Collaborate Confidently, and Trust Totally.
The first law of digital body language – Value Visibly – is all about being attentive and aware of others – letting them know you understand and appreciate them. Some lessons I’ve learned in the area of Value Visibly:
Respect other people’s time – If you set up a meeting, make sure to start and end on time. Have a clear agenda and goals of what you want to get accomplished in the meeting. If you can’t get through everything in one meeting, end on time and schedule a follow-up meeting. Send out your agenda in advance. Invite who is necessary to take action and make decisions to the meeting, and make anyone else optional so they know they can choose whether or not they would like to join. As a meeting attendee, try to avoid multitasking and wasting people’s time by repeating the information that was just said or requiring additional meetings to cover the same information. Another option is to record meetings to share out with those who were not able to attend or to help capture transcripts or notes for follow-ups.
Recognize others – A simple thank you so much or quick recognition of a job well done can go a long way. With my team, as they contribute to a project, client work, or just relieve me of a nagging task, I say thank you. It is a quick way to show your appreciation and that you see their contributions to your organization.
Acknowledge individual meeting preferences – Are you working with introverts or extroverts? If you are working with introverts, leverage Zoom functions like the hand raise feature or chat box to help moderate the conversation, send information prior to the meeting so they will have time to prepare, practice silence and pauses to allow others to speak, and set time limits on speaking so that louder voices don’t get more air time. If you are working with extroverts, hold regular meetings to talk through information, and create opportunities for social interaction in and between meetings utilizing tools like breakout rooms or social hours.
A phone call can resolve misunderstandings – Sometimes you just can’t get it right in written communications. Instead of sending a volley of 20+ Slack messages or emails, take a pause and schedule a time to connect by phone or video call. When we are communicating in writing we can often send messages too quickly and those can be quickly misunderstood or mischaracterized. You get so much more information across in a phone call where you can hear the person’s tone of voice and they can more quickly get the words out instead of overthinking what they are sending in text.
When you practice Value Visibly you create more trust and respect.
The second law of digital body language – Communicate Carefully – is about making an effort to minimize the risk of your message being misinterpreted or misunderstood. Some lessons I’ve learned in the area of Communicate Carefully:
When in doubt, slow down – Speed is the enemy of clarity and accuracy. Before you start to type a message, think about your audience, how you will send them the message, what you want them to do, when you want them to do it, when are you going to send the message, and what questions are they going to ask when they get your message. If you find out news late in the day or close to the end of the work day, making the decision around how critical it is to send that news out can make or break someone’s evening. You can draft or send the message that day/night and schedule it to hit inboxes the next day. If you think that there will be a lot of questions about the message you send, plan to schedule a meeting or listening session to help navigate its contents. Be clear about the actions you want someone to take after reading the message.
Your sense of urgency does not equal an emergency – Sometimes you may feel that something is very urgent and needs to get done, but that may be a symptom of you not having the time to do it, or not much having time to pass that information on to someone else to manage. Think carefully about if something is important rather than urgent. Also, leveraging tools like a calendar or project, or task management system can help you keep track of what needs to happen before it becomes an urgent emergency. Unless you’re working in the medical field, oftentimes our urgent emergencies, are not really that critical.
Use subject lines or first sentences to create context – You can work with your team to develop norms around what are acceptable acronyms to quickly understand requests – something like “ACTION NEEDED”, “FYI” (For Your Information), “RFI” (Request for Information), “Decision Request.”
Use headings, formatting, bullets, or numbered lists in messages or emails – Summarize information into sections and use headings to identify who, what, when, where, why, and how to provide clarity. Use bullets for breaking up information into scannable pieces or numbers to list out steps. Use bold formatting on deadlines, and underline important details or links. Remember, don’t go overboard with formatting, it reduces clarity and causes confusion if you are changing colors, and fonts, or putting everything in bold.
Present options clearly – Make decision points easier by laying out the options as A, B, C, or numbered 1, 2, 3. This allows someone to make a decision more quickly rather than asking an ambiguous question like “Thoughts?”
When you practice Communicate Carefully you create more alignment.
The third law of digital body language – Collaborate Confidently – is about making an effort to minimize the risk of your message being misinterpreted or misunderstood. Some lessons I’ve learned in the area of Collaborate Confidently:
Know your role – When everyone is trying to do the same thing, it creates confusion around accountability and who is taking the action. Knowing who is doing what and when is important to establish from the start. It is also helpful to know how your role fits with the goals and objectives that are established to create success.
Avoid scope creep and define what success looks like together – When you start an engagement with a new client or business, be clear about what you are doing for them and what they are responsible for, and also what good, better, and best results look like.
Set reasonable deadlines – I try not to let perfection be the enemy of done. However, there are only so many hours in the day and with most projects I’m working on, I try to plan ahead to avoid any last-minute tasks or projects that increase the likelihood of errors and don’t produce as effective results because they are rushed. I utilize Asana or ClickUp to manage tasks and timelines, as well as my Google Calendar to build in time for the work that needs to happen. To be strategic, we need enough time to set up things right to make the best results possible.
Be available and avoid cancellations – As much as possible, I am available for my clients. It is my preference to meet weekly and check in to ensure we are on track with the goals and timelines. The weekly meetings are a great place to discuss the regular flow of work. I also encourage setting up different meeting times and potentially longer meetings for kicking off new or complex projects, doing project reviews, and especially strategically planning for the next quarter or year of work to come. Between meetings, we communicate between messenger apps and emails – but that meeting time is essential for downloading what’s happening in a client’s business, getting timely feedback, and adding new tasks to the list.
When you practice Collaborate Confidently you assume the best intent from others and eliminate the worry and uncertainty that causes people to freeze up and avoid taking action.
The fourth law of digital body language – Trust Totally – is only possible with the presence of the previous three laws in place and your team is empowered and do not fear criticism or punishment. Some lessons I’ve learned in the area of Trust Totally:
Give the benefit of the doubt – Knowing all the different ways a digital message can be misinterpreted or misunderstood, I give the benefit of the doubt to the person sending the communication that they did not mean ill intent. Don’t get defensive, state the facts, align around a common goal, vision or direction. I try to address any communication issues that have arisen in the next face-to-face meeting, phone call, or video call.
Create a safe space for feedback – I let clients and colleagues know that I am open to direct feedback. At any point, they can raise concerns without being met with resistance, indignation, or anger. Open dialogue is encouraged and welcomed.
Don’t be all about business, allow for authentic connections – I like to know my clients and team members on a deeper level. While we don’t have to be the best of friends, it is helpful to approach our work together with friendliness. I show up as my full self in my business and encourage my clients to do the same. We start meetings with a general check-in before moving on to our usual business.
When you practice Trust Totally you create psychological safety.
Want to learn more?
Dhawan’s book provides more insights into power dynamics, gender identity, generational, and cultural differences in digital body language. Grab your copy of Digital Body Language on Amazon forKindle, Audiobook, Hard Cover, or Paperback.