The Problems of Digital Body Language

About two years ago, I started hearing one story after the next, all centering on the same theme: miscommunication.

I’d been giving keynote speeches and consulting clients around the world, teaching people about how to collaborate better at work. The most common questions I received were: How can we innovate faster and further by capitalizing on the expertise of digitally fluent employees while still leveraging an experienced workforce that is comfortable in its ways? And how can I get these two groups to truly collaborate with each other? 

More and more clients and audience members of all ages were expressing high levels of fear, anxiety, and paranoia about communication in their workplace. Leaders were doing what they’d always done — for example, sharing messages of support and trust with their colleagues and teams — but more and more of those messages were being misunderstood, misinterpreted, or missed altogether.

These leaders weren’t dumb or lacking in social skills, and many were conversant in cutting-edge methods of building strong cultures.

As I dug more deeply into the responses I was getting, the biggest complaints seemed to revolve around how communications were being translated inside those same workplaces. That is, how a message that was meant to be friendly and to the point could be read by the recipient as angry or resentful, causing less engagement and innovation and even the loss of top performers.

I had a meeting with a client, a senior leader at Johnson & Johnson who I’ll call Kelsey, who had gotten some tough feedback from her team on morale issues. In Kelsey’s performance review, her boss commented that her “empathy was weak.” 

When Kelsey and I first met and began talking, I kept my eye out for the standard, universal markers of subpar empathy: an inability to understand the needs of others, a lack of proficiency in reading and using body language, poor listening skills, a failure to ask deep questions. 

I was confused. Kelsey seemed to have fantastic empathy skills. She made me feel at ease, her body language signaled respect and understanding, and she listened deeply and carefully. What was going on? 

The answer had less to do with Kelsey and more to do with today’s tech-reliant workplace. Instead of lacking empathy, Kelsey, like nearly everyone I counseled, didn’t know what empathy meant anymore in a world where digital communication had made once-clear signals, cues, and norms almost unintelligible. A tone of voice? Approachable body language? Those things didn’t cut it anymore. 

The digital world required a new kind of body language. The problem was that no one could agree on what even made up that kind of body language. 

For example, Kelsey believed she was doing everyone a favor by keeping her emails brief. But her team found them cold and ambiguous. Kelsey sent calendar invites at the last minute with no explanation, which made her teammates feel disrespected, as though Kelsey’s schedule mattered more than theirs. During strategy presentations, Kelsey would glance down repeatedly at her phone, making others feel like she had checked out. 

Kelsey’s digital body language, then, was abysmal. It canceled out the very real clarity that comes when workplace colleagues (OK, humans in general) feel connected to one another via physical body language.

I realized that our understanding of body language needed to be redefined for the contemporary workplace. 

Today we’re all “immigrants” learning a new culture and language, except this time it’s in the digital space. Being a good leader today means not only being aware of other people’s signals and cues but also mastering a new digital body language that didn’t exist 20 years ago, and that most people today “speak” as badly as I spoke Hindi as a kid! 

It was the world’s dirty little secret: Some of the time — most of the time — people couldn’t make heads or tails of the tone behind messages they were getting in emails, text messages, conference calls, and so on. Nor were they entirely aware of how their own messages were being received. 

More than just a glitch or a nuisance — technology is such a pain! — our shiny new communication tools were causing serious issues. Work and decision-making had slowed. Teams were in disarray. Employees were left unmotivated, distrustful, uncertain, and paranoid. 

It seemed that “digital body language” — or rather, the lack of a set of universally agreed-upon rules — was creating big problems across the globe: in workplaces, communities, and even families. 

Everyone knew about these problems, but no one talked about them, except anecdotally. There was no rule- book either. We had all grown up knowing how to read and write, some of us better than others (says the girl who remembers the day in school when reading aloud from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, she pronounced the word “peculiar” as “peck-you-liar,” which her classmates never let her forget), but there was no instruction manual about how to read signals and cues in a digitized world. Instead, people at work were squandering hours or even days in uncertainty, anxiety, and disquiet. 

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I was hardly a Jedi Master at all this either. I’d wasted entire mornings endlessly re-reading a single email, trying to figure out what an ellipsis or the single-word query Thoughts? meant. I’d heard about friendships imploding over a WhatsApp conversation. 

What about the “like” on Facebook or Instagram from a colleague who hadn’t returned your two recent phone calls? (Did it signal “I’m sorry”? Was it a prelude to calling you back, a way of testing the friendship waters? Or was it a signal that from now on, you and that person would now be communicating exclusively via social media? What did it all mean? Something? Nothing?) 

What about the executive who signs off every email with “Thank you” — doesn’t that show clarity? On the face of it, sure — so why does it come across to his colleagues as insincere and inauthentic? 

I genuinely believe most people have good intentions. They just may not know how to convey those intentions.

How can we re-establish genuine trust and connection, no matter the distance? By creating a nuts-and-bolts rulebook for clear communications in the modern digital world.

Communicating what we really mean today requires that we understand today’s signals and cues at a granular level while developing a heightened sensitivity to words, nuance, subtext, humor, and punctuation, things we mostly think of as the field of operations for professional writers.

But if you think writing clearly is a niche or inessential skill, think again. When asked what the best investment professionals could make in their careers was, Julie Sweet, global CEO of Accenture, answered, “Develop excellent communication skills.” 

Sweet added that any employee, even a junior-level one, could significantly heighten their value by “articulately summarize[ing] a meeting…put[ting] together a presentation and [sending] emails that are really salient and to the point.” 

Much has been said about developing top-of-the- line presentation and public-speaking skills, but Sweet has seen the future, one in which a supposedly “soft” skill — communicating well, especially in your writing — is a critical competitive advantage. 

What does good digital body language look like in action? It means never assuming that our own digital habits (e.g., answering every email we get within 30 seconds, or never listening to our voicemails) are shared by everybody else. It means taking a few extra seconds to ask ourselves whether our sentences, words, or even punctuation might be misinterpreted. It means being hyperconscious of the signals and cues we send out, constantly checking in with ourselves, and learning along the way. 

From Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance by Erica Dhawan. © 2021 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

Erica Dhawan is a globally recognized leadership expert and keynote speaker helping organizations and leaders innovate faster and further, together. Erica has spoken, worldwide, to organizations and enterprises that range from the World Economic Forum to U.S. and global Fortune 500 companies, associations, sports teams, and government institutions.

Named as one of the top management professionals around the world by Global Gurus, she is the founder and CEO of Cotential, a company that has helped leaders and teams leverage 21-century collaboration skills globally.

Erica's writing has appeared in dozens of publications, including Fast Company and Harvard Business Review. She has an MPA from Harvard Kennedy School, MBA from MIT Sloan, and BS from The Wharton School. Sample interviews, and learn more at www.ericadhawan.com

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