We Need to Work on Our “Digital Body Language”, Says an Online Communication Expert

My conversation with author and digital body language expert Erica Dhawan

I recently had the chance to connect with author, entrepreneur, and keynote speaker Erica Dhawan about her new book, Digital Body Language. In a time where we are all being asked to communicate digitally more than ever before, Erica offers a useful guide to making our way through this changing digital landscape. We talk about how we can all improve our digital communication, below.

You describe yourself as a “21st century collaboration expert.” What does that mean?

I’ve studied human innovation and collaboration for over 15 years. What I’ve learned is that the key to innovation and success is connection. Teams (or even families) can look good on paper but fail to connect in their everyday experiences. My work lives at that intersection of humanity.

Tell me about your path to this role. How does your identity inform your work?

As a shy, introverted Indian-American immigrant girl growing up in Pittsburgh, I struggled to find my place. I juggled two languages and two cultures, and, eventually, I learned the skills I needed to build connections across difference — what were the body language signals that made certain people popular and others more confident? I’ve been studying teamwork and collaboration ever since. In our world of digital connections, now we’re all immigrants learning how to use digital body language.

Additionally, as a working mom with 2 kids under 3 years old, I am passionate that we build the skills of both traditional and digital body language across our education systems, communities and broader society.

How would you describe your particular areas of research?

I write about the digital communication crisis and how to solve it with digital body language. I realized that the tools we’re using in our lives that are supposed to make it all easier and faster — everything from phone calls to texts to WebEx meetings — were actually causing a lot of stress, anxiety, and misunderstanding. After observing for a while and conducting research, it became obvious that the lack of nonverbal cues was affecting our communication more than we thought. After all, nonverbal body cues make up the majority of the meaning we take away from a conversation — they’re the key to first impressions and long-term business relationships alike. Teams are overthinking their emails, ruminating on confusing messages or stressed about communicating with customers online. Overall, the loss of body language cues and tone is perpetuating an anxiety-ridden society.

You say we are in need of mastering a new kind of language — digital body language. What is digital body language and what should we know about it?

Digital Body Language serves the same purpose as traditional body language does in our face-to-face conversations and it’s important for all of the same reasons. We rely on non-verbal body language cues to connect and build trust — skills that are even harder behind a screen. In our modern world, we have entire relationships, businesses, degrees behind a screen — but also our digital shift in 2020 has unlocked opportunities from the classroom to the boardroom where hybrid engagement (both in person and virtual work) is here to stay.

Digital Body Language is essentially the subtext of cues and signals that we embed into our online messages. We need to know how to show what we want to imply and how to avoid sending digital body language signals that we don’t intend to be sending.

Many of us have had to quickly adapt to working in a remote-only setting due to the pandemic. More than a year later, what are we still bad at? What are some changes we should make right now?

I recently partnered with research firm Quester to run a 2,000 person representative study of the American workforce. In our study, the digital habits with the highest negative impact on collaboration were a lack of communication and the feeling that one’s supervisor doesn’t value one’s work.

A whopping 75% of respondents reported that a lack of communication was the most impactful negative digital communication pattern they experience. Because our increasingly digital workspaces leave us physically distant from our teams, it’s even more important to be explicit about getting on the same page and updating others as we go along. We can combat this by setting norms around how often and how quickly we communicate. For example, when you plan out the trajectory of a project, include regular checkpoints — and stick to them. Similarly, talk to your team about setting response time expectations. Depending on your industry, you may decide that all emails need to be answered within 24 hours — or 2 hours. And do the same across all of the digital channels that you use. When everyone knows when a response or check-in is expected, accountability is heightened and anxiety is lowered.

More than seven out of every ten respondents felt undervalued by their supervisor. As the signs of respect have changed, so too have the skills we need to use to make our colleagues feel valued. Today, leaders can show that they value someone’s work in subtle ways like responding quickly, addressing every point of a multiple-point email, and providing engaging feedback along the way. We can also show that we value each team member by being good meeting moderators and making sure that everyone’s voice gets heard. And if you want to make an obvious show of recognition, take the time to slow down and do it thoughtfully.

Here are a few ideas: set time aside at the beginning of meetings to celebrate wins and give credit where it’s due; send a video message to team members on their birthdays; send a group IM explicitly stating your gratitude for your team’s hard work at the end of a big project — and give them a day off to recharge.

In my book I talk about how silence can be uncomfortable in conversation, and particularly in-person. You say this can be the case digitally, too — if someone takes a long time to respond to an email, Slack message, or text. Tell us about timing anxiety and how to manage it.

If we are being honest with ourselves, most of us are uncomfortable with pauses and silences. Our brains come up with one explanation after another to explain the absence of an immediate response, especially in situations where trust is low and power dynamics are out of balance. The first thing to remember is that most of the time a longer response time means nothing at all; the other person got tied up, was doing something else, didn’t notice they’d gotten a text, had their volume turned off, or forgot where they put their phone. Beyond that, I recommend that teams set clear communication norms and stick to them! For example, if everyone agrees to only use texts when they need a response within the hour, then getting a text quickly signals to the recipient that this is something they need to respond to quickly and not put off until later.

Talk to us about the “online disinhibition effect”. Why are we more likely to be jerks online than in person, and what can we do about that?

Basically, researchers have found that when we’re communicating online, we drop our guards — we’re more likely to be rude, we forego formalities. We’re distanced and feel like the screen protects us and allows us to send passive-aggressive or just downright mean messages. The best way to curb this toxic behavior is to humanize the person on the other side of the screen. When I coach teams, I recommend focusing on getting to know the whole person, not just ‘Susan from Marketing’ — an easy way to do that in our virtual world is to start meetings and video calls with 5 minutes of wins and struggles where each person shares something good that’s happening in their lives, whether it be personal or work-related and something that they may be dreading or perhaps a problem that they’ve been unable to solve. This practice can quickly become a silo-breaking exercise in connectional intelligence. You will witness team members celebrate wins together and solve each other’s problems like never before.

How does this work build on your previous books?

My first book, Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence, was all about harnessing the power of 21st century networks to create innovation. It was going beyond a distant LinkedIn connection and finding partners and customers in places you’d never expect. In our modern world, that often means communicating across gender, generations, time zones, and all sorts of silos that can keep us apart. We saw that during COVID — when we can’t meet each other face to face, we naturally turn to our digital alternatives. And that’s where this new book comes in. We need digital body language skills to truly connect in 2021 and beyond.

By Ximena Vengoechea, first published at May 15, 2021