A shorter version of this book review: Digital Body Language – How to build trust and connection no matter the distance by Erica Dhawan was published in the Summer 2021 edition of Professional Marketing Magazine which is sent free to members of the Professional Marketing Forum.
I was excited at the prospect of reading this book – assuming it would address the differences in physical body language in a virtual environment. Just what we all need as we polish our virtual presence in these remote working times! However, the book is concerned with how we express emotion and empathy, create trust, build virtual relationships and encourage collaboration through the digitally written word – in texts, chat, instant messages (IM) and emails.
The author observes wisely: “We’re all immigrants in today’s digital workplace”. So the book provides a way to interpret non-verbal digital cues. As such, the book has a wide appeal as we all need to develop our digital communication skills. Do you know how to convey trust, engagement, excitement and urgency in digital communications?
The detailed points on how to build better team communication in geographically and culturally diverse teams will be welcomed by many. It will be particularly valuable to those leading virtual teams – especially those comprising different genders, generations and cultures.
The book will be vital for those who focus on internal communications. There are also some helpful insights for crisis PR communications. And the author argues that digital body language is important for the client experience too. And there’s valuable content on how to establish online executive presence.
It provides a treasure chest of practical advice – and assessments and checklists – on how to avoid miscommunication in the workplace.
The first part starts with an eye-opening exploration of digital style.
Four laws of digital body language
The second part examines the author’s four laws of digital body language:
- Value visibly – Be attentive to people and clearly communicate “I hear you”, “I understand you” and “I value you”. Move from unstated appreciation to stated recognition. She explains how to show you are actively listening in a digital conversation. The importance of an appreciative environment and the work of is Nancy Kline is mentioned in this article on feedback.
- Communicate carefully – “Getting to the point while considering context, medium and audience”. She advises you to think before you type, to slow down, to be tone-deft, to consider the visual impact of messages and to take care with length, complexity and familiarity. There is a short video on the secrets of successful writing – especially being concise.
- Collaborate confidently – Stay in the loop, understand what other departments do and focus on stakeholder management and achieving buy-in, build team confidence, fight thoughtless deadlines and avoid digital group think. I produced a short video on achieving buy-in
- Trust totally – “Trust is not about what we say but how we say it”. There is advice on how to create psychological safety including modelling the behaviour you want to see, leaders being vulnerable and creating digital watercooler moments. I wrote on article about trust in business relationships.
The third part provides a valuable guide to navigating gender, generation and cultural differences.
There are fascinating insights into unconscious bias around gender – when we look at the name of the sender of an email and interpret the tone of the message. Linguists are cited who report that gender patterns have little boys being more assertive and girls being more indirect and taking the feelings of others into account.
“Women who communicate directly are perceived as cold, ruthless or withholding”. The lack of hedging language (i.e. perhaps, might, maybe), absence of detail or lack of back-and-forth questions can be perceived as a problem in a relationship with women. Yet guidance on showing confidence suggests otherwise.
There are HBR observations that women need to be seen as warm as well as confident and influential. To be authentic but use framing statements (e.g. “I’ll be as specific as possible to”) and explain motivation. Men speak up more in meetings so facilitators have to encourage women to contribute. There are interesting insights into inclusive language rather than that with masculine or feminine skews. I enjoyed the funny explanation of digital mansplaining.
“Different generations don’t merely use different digital body language; they also have different interpretations of the same digital body language cues”. The author reports that differences between digital adapters and digital natives isn’t always based on age alone.
There’s an exploration of the different interpretations of greetings such as “Hey”, “Hi” and “Hello”. There are generational channel preferences and aversion by some to telephone calls and voicemails. The digital rule of thumb is that when the latest, most informal channel of communication comes along (e.g. texting), the channel preceding it (e.g. email) becomes obsolete overnight.
The main focus is on the differences between high context cultures (implicit so they rely heavily on nonverbal cues) such as the Mediterranean, Latin America, Africa, Middle East, Asia, China and Japan) and low context cultures which are explicit such as most English-speaking Western cultures including the US and UK.
A key point is to cc managers in Asian organisations as a signal of respect. There’s also advice in high context cultures to include something to connect personally before outlining your request. Silence a sign of respect in high context cultures. Regional differences are also explored – for example, the differences between the East and West coast of America.
Slow down to accommodate different accents and ensure follow up emails summarise key points and actions. Communicating successfully with other cultures often involves the adaptation of so-called feminine language. Studies show that how we close emails has a significant effect on whether the recipient feels respected.
There are other articles on cultural differences:
Cross cultural communication – Kim Tasso
How can I improve my cross cultural communication (kimtasso.com)
Intercultural working – some insights – Kim Tasso
Digital anxiety and stress
To avoid causing digital anxiety and stress the author argues to always be impeccable with your word (which reminded me of Don Miguel Ruiz’s four agreements). The main causes of anxiety in digital communications are brevity, passive-aggressiveness, slow responses and formality.
I was stunned to learn about the power of emojis (“provide texture and context to our sleek digital communications” although she reports a study that overuse of emojis implied incompetence at work), abbreviations and punctuation marks (the humble “!” is elevated to super-power status). “Women are more likely to use exclamation points to come across as friendly, warm and approachable whereas men are more likely to use them to signal urgency”. Even the use of a full stop or ellipses (…) can have different meanings in some channels.
Digital Body Language – How to build trust (Trust and power matrix)
The trust and power matrix helps with decisions on how quickly to respond and in what style as “the disconnect between intention and interpretation is exacerbated by the online disinhibition effect”. The author summarises as follows:
- Priority = choice of medium
- Emotion = punctuation and symbols
- Respect = timing (“it takes 90 minutes for the average person to reply to an email and 90 seconds for the average person to respond to a text message”)
- Inclusion = To, Cs, Bcc, Reply all
- Identity = your digital persona
Your digital persona is comprised of the following:
- Your name (whether you use it in full or a shorter version, and whether you are male, female or non-binary)
- Your email (personal or company-branded? Outdated such as Yahoo!, Hotmail or Gmail?
- Your profile picture
- Your search results
The author argues that what is implicit in body language now has to be explicit in our digital body language. The text is peppered with anecdotes, stories and research studies to illustrate key points and different scenarios. Some of the points I noted:
- In some cultures, silence is a form of respect – whilst in others it isn’t tolerated. Research shows Brits can tolerate it for just four seconds, whereas Japanese are OK for eight seconds.
- 70% of all communications amongst teams is virtual. We send 306 billion emails every day – with the average person sending 30 emails daily and fielding 96. And 50% of the time the “tone” of our emails is misinterpreted
- Nonverbal cues make up 60 to 80 percent of face-to-face communication. It’s harder to show we care. Even our response time (what’s urgent) conveys information.
- The importance of greetings (there’s an analysis of “Hey”, “Hi” and “Hello”) and signatures (“Kind regards” vs “Regards” vs “KR” etc).
- Thumbs up emoji signifies agreement or approval in Western cultures, but it is considered vulgar or offensive in Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.
- Psychologist James Pennebaker found that in any interaction the person with the higher status uses I-words less than people with low status.
- Linguist Naomi Baron found we comprehend less when reading on a screen than we do when reading print.
- Introverts need longer to process information and therefore may appear to be less talkative on video calls.
- 65% people admitted to doing other work or sending email while participating in conference calls.
- 80% projects suffer from a lack of clarity and detail – 56% of strategic projects fail as a result of poor communication.
- A Fortune study found that 60% of all employees have to consult with at least 10 colleagues daily just to get their jobs done. Half of the 60% need to engage with more than 20 colleagues.
- A third of young professionals feel no qualms about using emojis when communicating with colleagues.
Guidance for meetings and messages
The author includes basic (one would have thought common sense) ideas on how to be a meeting ninja – including a ban on multi-tasking. (There’s some material on managing virtual teams). She does the same for messages – use the 3Ws – who, what and when.
You should indicate in the subject line whether it’s:
- Decision request
- Information request.
You should break long messages into parts – a quick summary and then the details.
Show people instead of telling them by attaching screen shots and other images. Present options rather than ask open ended questions. And specify guidelines for when and how to communicate on different internal channels (I liked the tables showing the tool, when to use, response time and norms of use). There’s also examples of weak and powerful commitments at the end of meetings.
I liked the way she described people’s reactions to telephone calls now: “so used to controlling when and how we respond to texts and emails that when a phone call comes in, we treat it like a bomb that’s set to detonate on the sidewalk”.
PS I constantly questioned the author’s wise words and research findings in terms of its relevance to professional services – an environment where formality and hierarchy often still dominates. But the author reports that her contacts in PSFs feel that formality has generally gone down in the workplace.