Given that so many people have been working from home, the nature of work has changed dramatically this past year.
Instead of having meetings face to face, meetings are now being conducted via Zoom. Instead of just stopping by someone’s desk to ask them a question, we now send them an email.
And something is lost in these digital forms of communication – our ability to interpret body language or to know what somebody really means when they write an email a certain way.
A story in this week’s Wall Street Journal looks at this dilemma and try to offer suggestions on how best to decode what such nonverbal cues might mean.
But there’s a big problem with the suggestions offered; just about every one of them comes with a caveat that notes the actual meaning of one of these nonverbal cues could have nothing to do with the suggested interpretation.
- a colleague crossing her arms could signal she’s closed off to an idea or has some information you’re not considering OR the crossed arms could mean she is just feeling cold.
- Eyebrows pointing down toward the middle of your nose indicate anger OR in one situation a person’s image appeared to show a furrowed brow, leading her colleagues to think she was angry. However, the problem was with the person’s computer constantly freezing, and leaving her image with such a look for a while until her computer was working again.
- with email, older workers might mean nothing by using an ellipsis, while younger workers read them as sarcastic (I love to use the ellipsis…)
- some colleagues may love using emojis, while others remain baffled by them.
- gazing directly into someone’s eyes for more than one to two seconds is interpreted as intimacy or a precursor to conflict. Now we lock eyes all day on Zoom, and likely it means nothing.
- our images on screen are generally bigger than typical personal space would afford in the office. The perceived closeness can make us uncomfortable, or convince us we’re held in higher regard by a meeting attendee than we actually are. And here I thought my colleagues really liked me…
- one person related the story of a colleague who would push his shoulders forward and slide up in his seat when he was ready to share during an in-person meeting. But on video the motion felt more dramatic. “It was a little bit alarming at first,” the person said. “It felt like he was coming at you.”
Despite these seemingly contradictory words of advice, there were a few simple things people could do to increase the likelihood that they are correctly interpreting what someone is trying to tell them, and vice versa:
- if you are confused by an email, ask for clarity if you have a close relationship with the sender, and just assume good intent if you don’t.
- If something vexing happens three times, it’s probably worth a candid conversation
- Reduce the size of your Zoom window so meeting attendees don’t appear uncomfortably close.
- Pay attention to changes: If your usually casual boss pivots to using more formal language, something might be up.
All these seem like useful guidelines, but to me it just boils down to the basics of effective communication, whether it is online or not. If you’re not sure what somebody means, ask. And if you’re not sure if people are understanding what you are saying, ask them if they have any questions – and wait for them to respond.
Any questions? 😠