Digital Body Language
How to properly express yourself online

The most recent swap into remote work for countless companies around the world caused quite a ruckus and uproar. Everyone, even if accustomed to using technology every day had to adapt themselves to these new conditions, and it didn’t come with ease. And yet, the biggest issue caused by this change has lingered to this day – how to convey your intentions with text, understandably? “Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance” by Erica Dhawan is a must-read for all leaders and employees wanting to communicate with their co-workers more clearly. The book explains what constitutes digital body language and how you can both manage and improve it.

The differences between physical and digital body language

Now that everyday communication takes place digitally, both in work and casual environments, understanding how to translate your body language into a digital form can help others read your intentions better. Physical body language occurs mostly automatically: crossing arms, averting your sight, even smiling in some circumstances. In everyday situations, excluding speeches and such, we don’t consider taking such actions on purpose, because then we would appear as superficial, wouldn’t we? To say it shortly, it’s unintentional. 

And that is the biggest difference between the two, digital body language has to be implemented purposefully, and with the full intent of doing so. As during your zoom calls, you might have accidentally looked at something interesting happening outside, or maybe you checked your phone because it buzzed while writing an email, these things do not happen. You can’t accidentally add an emoji in the middle of the text nor thank someone in advance for their help. Those are the actions that you take in order to express your intentions, and they’re all done on purpose.

Challenges and rules of digital communication

The most troubling online relationships are the non-casual ones, such as in the workplace or school. With hybrid working becoming the most prevalent one in modern society, optimizing these problems and minimizing their occurrences is one of the main goals of most companies at this moment. So, what issues can actually arise while for example sending a work email. 

Recall your last sent email: did you properly express the purpose of it, did you hasten your co-workers in case of a sudden change of priorities, did you accentuate that your words have utmost importance to complete a task or have no ill intent behind them? If you can’t genuinely answer no, then you might have caused a misunderstanding yourself or came across the wrong way. Your sentences could have been too short or concise and you appeared as unfriendly to your colleagues, or maybe you used too many emojis and exclamations marks making you seem insecure – even the smallest things can make you seem like a scourge instead of a friend.


Laws and elements of proper digital body language

“Research shows that roughly 60% to 80% of our face-to-face communication is non-verbal language, such as the pacing, pauses, gestures and tone. All of these cues bring energy and emotional nuance to our message. In many ways, punctuation and the use of symbols in a digital world are the new means of signaling that emotion.”

– Erica Dhawan

So, what are the digital body language rules that Dhawan defines in her book? There are 4 of them:

  1. Value visibly
  2. Communicate clearly
  3. Collaborate confidently
  4. Trust totally

To expand on these rules a bit, I’ll try to explain them how the author intended. Firstly, to value visibly means that all forms of appreciation have to be expressed in a digital form, either text or a sign of sorts. For example, if someone speaks about their ideas for the future and you agree with them, you should send either a short text message like ‘I agree!’ or send a heart emoji. This form of action will make sure that the speaker feels valued during the conversation and sees their input being appreciated. It’s simply wrong to assume that our colleagues will know how much we respect them.

Secondly, it’s much easier to prevent misunderstandings beforehand than fixing them afterwards. As Dhawan says: “When it comes to communicating carefully, less haste is more speed”. To spend a few more minutes, or even seconds, proof-reading your own email to make sure there is no space for mistakenly doing something else than expected is a cut above way to speed everything up, as opposed to figuring out what went wrong afterwards.

Thirdly, with how the modern world is structured and the descent into digitalization caused us to feel more insecure and anxious than ever before. And even though that’s the case, we need to trust our teams that the decisions, approvals, and objections will be understood and respected.

Lastly, to ‘trust totally’ means that we need to stop controlling everything. Our colleagues are expected to be able to fulfil the tasks that were given to us, tell the truth and keep their word – and that should be the case in all fair environments. Of course, it should be mentioned that trust doesn’t equal naivety, if we suspect that something could be going wrong, it’s best to supervise others a little to make sure that we’re all on the same track.

How to find your own digital voice?

And even though we went through all these rules and explanations of how to properly express yourself digitally, it ends up being up to you to how you want to be perceived by others. You can be the person who always responds to every email with haste or the one elaborately and lengthily explains every single one of your points. It’s for sure a benefit of digital communication that there are many more options and time to consider when thinking of one’s appearance online. Spend a while on figuring out how your co-workers perceive you at the moment and adjust that to however you would rather have their experiences with you be.

It's important to remember that your virtual self always represents your real self and taking care of both these appearances is imperative to uphold a good work reputation and continue self-improving into the future.


Written by - Jakub Machnik   

Benjamin Hjelm 8 January, 2023
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