How To Interpret Digital Body Language and Emails, or Not

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.

For example:

  • 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? 😠

 

69 thoughts on “How To Interpret Digital Body Language and Emails, or Not

  1. This is why I like using ‘lol’ a lot, lol. I find that simply typing the direct messages can be too abrupt in the digital world. But meh, on second thought, I’m probably overthinking things.

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  2. As always, people’s body language can mean different things, Jim. I think people find it easier to be rude and abrupt when you don’t meet face-to-face. Zoom and email is causing relationships to break down, in my opinion.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I never paid that much attention to body language until I started doing parent/teacher conferences. Some people literally can’t make eye contact. It’s a curious thing, but I learned that it was often associated with nervousness. In just about any situation, the best way to reduce tension is to share some humor. When I could tell a parent was nervous, I’d usually share a funny anecdote about their child, and it would immediately make them feel more comfortable. Interpreting body language over Zoom is, at best, an educated guess.

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  4. Something to consider is that queues aren’t always meant for you – I’ve across like I’m laughing at a colleague is saying when really one of my children has done something off screen to make me smile!

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  5. When it comes to body language, we usually tie the visual seamlessly into the audible and glean our interpretation of intent through the subtle reconciliation of both cues. But email is much trickier. Email not only eliminates picking up on subtle visual clues, but it also lacks the tone and timbre of spoken language that we often draw our understanding from for intent or context. As you said, the easiest way around this is to ask for clarification when needed and always assume the best intentions until you know otherwise.

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  6. I think things can easily get lost in translation when not in person. sometimes a crossed arms are just weariness from sitting in front of a screen for so long, a smile can be something happening off screen, people are not used to staring at another in close-up mode for long periods of time, etc. email takes it to a whole other level, and texts – well, there’s a whole other level yet again, of trying to interpret the texter’s true meaning – all caps, punctuation, abbreviations, emoji’s ….

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  7. Digital communication has just opened up new ways of confusing us. I use emojis, rather than abbreviations like ‘lol.’ One of our former Prime Ministers thought that meant ‘lots of love’ until he was told otherwise: communication is a two way process whatever the medium, and is open to interpretation. If you’re looking for a good example of Zoom going haywire, put ‘Jackie Weaver’ into the YouTube search box 😉

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      1. I just watched about a six-minute clip – what I saw was quite funny. I saw the whole clip pop up for viewing, I may have to watch it later. Good thing to know that the local meetings over there can be as ridiculous as the local meetings here…

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      2. I’ve only seen the shorter versions, haven’t dared risk laughing too hard at the full one. I haven’t heard it, but I read yesterday that she has made a charity record based on this. She has been on tv – via Zoom, of course – and has become a bit of a star here. I’ve been to meetings like that, too…

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  8. That’s one nice thing about emails. You can hide your body language. For instance, if I’m giving someone the finger, while pecking out an email with the other finger, they’re clueless. And sometimes it’s just better that way.

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  9. I think people usually put too much stock in body language. Demeanor (body language) is just one ambiguous clue. It is not definitive. There are better ways to figure out what’s going on. As Jim suggests, ask and look for other means to corroborate or refute an assumption. From legal experience, trying to Interpret demeanor in person much less in an email or over Zoom is unreliable. Clarity in communications is a good thing although hard to achieve sometimes.

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    1. good points, John. as the article suggests, the same body language could mean very different things. The key to any communication, digital or otherwise, is to be clear what the other person is saying, and if you are not, to ask for clarification. and the same goes for when you are the speaker; make sure the listener is receiving the message you intend to send.

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  10. So that’s what 3 dots are called I probably use far too many and incorrectly…I also love emoji’s but much prefer speech to text as messages are open to misinterpretation often and I know as you said ask but that can make it worse still….some interesting replies 🙂 x

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    1. I’m hoping there is no right way or wrong way to use an ellipsis; otherwise I’m in big trouble. And I agree, sometimes it is awkward to ask for clarification or to try and ensure that the person you are speaking to understands the message you are trying to convey…

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  11. I think these are really good general things to look out for but it usually depends on the person. I tend to frown and look angry when I concentrate even though I’m usually not- sometimes I am lol…

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  12. I have had some great laughs from my friend doing speech to text. Embarrassing for her though. LOL!
    Brad’s Aunt left me a FB message years ago that was telling me she was sorry that I had the flu. Then she ended it with LOL!
    She thought it just stood for “Lots of Love” 😄

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    1. I agree, digital communication cannot replace personal communication. It may help in between such connections, but I think we will always need that personal touch. It’s part of what makes us human…

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  13. It’s fascinating to think of the long term changes to our culture as our communication style changes. THe next generations will start off with zoom as a primary communication style and create new conventions, while some of us will remain clueless. Fun times!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. You said it Jim. We are missing so much from life. And human interaction is necessary in so many ways. I can’t imagine how many children will be affected or have anxiety or social issues after this nightmare is calmed.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. We also lost the input of our coworkers. Facing an abundance of emails, technology issues and zoom meetings while juggling the demands of other family members working or attending school online certainly led many to keep quiet rather than offer their take on topics being discussed.

    Liked by 1 person

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