How to Form Human Connections Across a Screen
Miscommunication and mistrust are common when work is over email, text, and video. We need digital body language to foster understanding.
As the youngest child in an immigrant Indian family, I picked up basic English grammar fairly easily. But while English may have felt natural, I still lacked a lot of the contextual cues that came naturally to my American-born peers.
I remember once inviting a school friend to join my family for dinner at a local restaurant. At one point, my friend whispered to me that the waiters thought our party was “rude.” It wasn’t what anyone said; it was our tone and our cadence. You see, in Indian English, when people ask for something, they often use an intonation with a falling cadence so it comes off sounding like a statement rather than a question. Most Americans are accustomed to requests that end in a rising cadence. At that moment, I knew exactly what my friend meant: Without realizing it, everyone in my family sounded like we were ordering around the staff.
When people communicate, they make use of a broad range of “contextualization” cues (such as tone and cadence) that help others assess the meanings behind their words. For instance, “I love that film” accompanied by a head nod signals something entirely different than “I love that film” paired with an eye roll or a wink.
My immigrant family may have seemed like the odd ones out during my childhood as we adapted to the culture of our new home. But in today’s digital workplace, we’re all “immigrants” to some degree as we’ve had to adapt to a sudden shift in how we work. This means that it requires time, patience, and reflection to pick up on the subtle cues that help us understand what others may really be saying.
Today, what was implicit in our traditional body language now has to be explicit in what I call our “digital body language.”
Good digital body language means putting out clear signals that keep everyone fully informed and aligned. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree — that almost never happens — but it does mean that goals are understood and shared. When team members are genuinely aligned on objectives and expectations, this higher level of mutual understanding frees everyone up to focus on being the best at what they do.
The speed and pace of change today make digital body language a challenge to implement. Teams used to spend months crafting a robust vision of strategic alignment before carefully communicating that vision over a face-to-face campaign from investors to business units to customers. Today, leaders need to disseminate information fast.
This means that people are expected to present their ideas in bullet points, using headlines as proxies for the ideas that support them. The universal chaos of unread email inboxes, IMs, texts, and calendar invites makes most of us crave a simpler, easier era of phone calls, office drop-ins, and uninterrupted client dinners. Back then, a day could go by before we finally responded to a voicemail (“Call Jack back,” we scrawled on a random piece of paper, which we then lost.) Needless to say, digital body language in today’s high-velocity, shorthand world demands a more concrete approach.
Since so much of our communication today makes use of our thumbs, we need new rules of thumb to help us communicate clearly and persuasively. Here are a few basic principles from my new book Digital Body Language:
Think before you type
It was 8 p.m. on a Sunday night, and I was frazzled and tired but had to send off a few emails before the new week. Wearily, I drafted an email to my client Katie which included a strategy presentation. It looked good, I thought, so I typed “Katie” in the “To:” line, and when her email address popped up, I pressed “Send.” Done.
Two seconds later, my relief gave way to panic. I’d sent my email to another Katie at another company. This other Katie was a potential business prospect, a woman I was hoping someday to work with. I felt embarrassed — how stupid this must look to her. If I had only taken a few seconds to think clearly and been more careful about my communication, I could have avoided the whole thing.
Once we press “Send,” we give up control over where our words end up. A private email we send to an acquaintance might show up later in a post on his or her public Facebook page. Messages and posts can be copied, forwarded, altered, and updated in ways that change their fundamental meaning, not to mention translated instantly (and not always correctly) into almost any language. An email can show up from a customer or client without us knowing that our boss’s boss is included as a BCC.
All this means one thing: We need to be very careful.
Slow down and reread your messages
One former manufacturing executive I know sent his colleagues a voluminous, 12-paragraph email giving them a friendly heads-up about a possible future acquisition. Without his knowledge, two words from his long email were copied (out of context, too) and widely forwarded across the organization: “Expect layoffs.”
Esther, a hospital administrator, experienced the embarrassing and painful chaos that “Reply All” can create when she emailed the entire hospital staff with the latest draft of a controversial policy. Despite her best efforts to regain control, she spent the next week fielding “Reply All” feedback from 800 or so staff members.
Our fast-moving culture means that we don’t always take the time we need to proofread or reconsider the words we’ve written before we press “Send.” But today, rereading an email before we send it (and not 10 times after we send it) is no longer an option; it’s mandatory. How often have you heard the words, “But I sent you an email” or “Didn’t you get the email?” or “I am sure I covered that in the email” when you’re staring directly at the email in question and the information just isn’t there? Slow down.
How can we keep our communications as brief as possible while also remaining clear and professional? First, always send a full thought. Remember how back in grade school, we were taught how to write a sentence with a subject and a predicate—a subject and a verb? Nothing has changed. Clear digital communication follows a simple blueprint: context + a clear ask.
Be tone-deft not tone-deaf
Tone — the overall attitude or character of a piece of writing — is another key component of communicating carefully. Ask yourself: Who is the recipient? Who is the audience? Tailor your communication accordingly, or as I tell my clients, make sure you “read” the room.
Naturally, this means anticipating how your words are liable to come across to others. When you write, text, or call your boss or colleagues, for instance, it’s best to keep your tone neutral. Focus on being informative or persuasive. Showing empathy — I’m here for you, or I got this — doesn’t mean you have to sound syrupy. Stick to the facts. What’s the context here? Does your communication suit that context?
Offline, a loud tone of voice can convey emphasis (“This matters!”), serve as a switching signal (“Actually, this is the thing that matters!”), or express extreme feelings (“I’m furious!”). A softer voice conveys “I don’t know,” signals calm, or indicates that maybe it’s time for someone else to speak. The good news is that you can also modify the volume of your digital voice.
Consider the following email message: “THIS IS NOT GOOD, NEEDS A LOT OF WORK!!!!” It sounds like Zeus ordering a hit job on a lesser god — all caps, terse sentence structure, and a crazy picket fence of exclamation marks. If someone was trying to tear your head off, then the mission was accomplished. But if that same person was trying to convey respect, whoops!
Be aware, then, of the visual impact of your message.
Know when to change the channel
One of the most powerful things we can do is take pains to determine the appropriate channels and formats for different kinds of discussions. What discussions can occur over text, and when it is better to send an email? Do you schedule a meeting to address a point of confusion, or can it be sorted out with an immediate phone call? Using the wrong channel at the wrong time can have professional consequences, damaging trust or even branding you as unsophisticated or unsympathetic.
I teach clients to choose the right channel by focusing on three issues: length, complexity, and familiarity.
Of these three issues, length is the easiest one to manage. Most of us have family members or colleagues who send multiple, consecutive texts as they’re seemingly unable to squeeze their thoughts or ideas into one or two. If you want to provide someone with an update that will take more than a short paragraph, use email, and refrain from using channels like instant messaging. Use bold, underlined headings, and make sure you share specific context briefly upfront so readers understand why it’s important.
Complexity is a lot harder to figure out. The general rule of thumb is that bigger, broader ideas require more reflection and/or nuanced thinking. If you’re gearing up to make a complex argument, it’s best to choose a medium (including posting a deck or blogging), that permits a greater level of detail and that also supports add-on elements like photos, video, or space for feedback or comments.
Familiarity refers not only to our relationship with the recipient(s) of what we write but also the content of what we’re saying. Who is your audience? If you have a close relationship with someone, sending that person a text may be a welcome, neutral disruption. But in a business relationship, most people prefer communicating via email, which allows them to scan the subject line and decide when (or even if) to open and read your message.
Slow down, be tone-deft, think before you type, and choose the right channel. By being impeccable in your digital body language, you not only shine a light on negative or ill-considered communication, but you also show others by example the right way to respond.