Trust and connection are essential for any relationship. Yet, anxiety and misunderstanding can arise because we send the wrong signals in our texts, emails, and social media messages, or misinterpret others’ messages. This playbook by Erica Dhawan helps you to understand digital body language, and learn how to communicate effectively in a digital world. In this free Digital Body Language summary, you’ll learn the components and 4 laws of digital body language and what it takes to communicate clearly across differences.
What is Digital Body Language?
For millennia, human beings interacted face-to-face and developed complex non-verbal cues and body language. By comparison, digital communications are still extremely new. There’s no common definition for digital body language, how to interpret it, or what’s the appropriate tone, channel, or response time for such communications. In short, we’re all immigrants when it comes to digital body language.
This potential for misunderstanding can get worse as more employees work remotely. About 70% of team communications are now virtual, with 300 billion emails being sent daily. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology estimates that 50% of the time, the tone of our email gets misinterpreted by the receiving party.
Elements of Digital Body Language
In the book, Erica Dhawan helps to translate the subtle cues of physical body language into explicit expressions of digital body language via cues like choice of medium, symbols, punctuation, and timing.
In a nutshell:
- Your level of priority is reflected in your choice of medium;
- Your emotional expression is conveyed through your use of punctuation and symbols, such as the use of exclamation marks, periods, ellipses, emojis and CAPS;
- Your response time conveys your level of respect. Delayed responses or a total lack of response (“ghosting”) are equivalent to ignoring someone in person;
- Who you include in your “to”, “cc”, “bcc”, and “reply all” fields affect your level of inclusion; and
- Your digital persona (including your name, email address, profile picture and search results) reflects your identity.
To get specific examples, and tips on the choice of medium and appropriate response time, and use of punctuations/emojis, do get our complete book summary.
Here are a few examples of how you can combine the elements above to translate traditional body language to digital body language:
Challenges of Digital Communications
In a digital world, people are more likely to feel disengaged because of the loss of critical non-verbal cues. It’s also harder to express care/appreciation over digital mediums and get the response/timing right. On the other hand, it’s much easier to get distracted or to hide discomfort.
Digital communications can also be stressful due to ambiguity or digital power plays. There are 4 common sources of digital anxiety:
- Brevity: When you receive a short, vague message like “We need to talk” or “This makes no sense???”, you may fret over where the other person is coming from.
- Passive-aggressiveness: Seemingly-harmless phrases like “As I explained before” or “Just a gentle reminder” may be interpreted as a criticism of someone’s lack of attention or response.
- Slow responses: When you don’t get a reply to your email/text, you start to wonder if the other person received the message and why he/she hasn’t responded. To some people, not receiving a digital response in 1-2 days is akin to being ignored for a week.
- Too much formality can make you seem cold or unfriendly, while being too informal can make you seem careless or disrespectful.
You can get specific principles and tools to overcome digital anxiety from our full version of the Digital Body Language summary. These are further broken down into 4 laws of digital body language.
Digital Body Language: 4 Laws
Erica Dhawan sums up effective digital communications into 4 inter-related laws. The first 3 laws (Value Visible, Communicate Carefully, and Collaborate Confidently) lay the foundation for the 4th law (Trust totally).
VALUE VISIBLY: Explicitly show respect and appreciation
In a nutshell, this is about being sensitive to others’ needs, and using the appropriate digital body language to clearly communicate “I hear you” and “I understand you”. To do that, you must read carefully, write clearly and consciously, express your appreciation visibly, and respect people’s time and schedule.
COMMUNICATE CAREFULLY: Be clear and unambiguous
Be as clear as possible in your words and digital body language, taking into account the specific context, medium and audience in your communications. If you’re a leader, make sure that your team members know (i) the specific goals for each project, (ii) the conclusions and next steps for each meeting, (iii) the norms for medium selection and response times, and (iv) what’s being asked of them. This minimizes ambiguity and misunderstanding, so people can work effectively and efficiently.
COLLABORATE CONFIDENTLY: Build synergistic teams in the digital era
Achieve synergy by giving each person a voice, helping people to feel safe/supported, and creating goal/role clarity. This requires that you stay in the loop, ensure commitments/deadlines are honored, and demonstrate executive presence digitally.
TRUST TOTALLY: Build teams that move faster and further
This final pillar is built on the previous 3 pillars. In order for people to totally trust their team/organization, you need to create psychological safety where people tell the truth, keep their promises, and have faith in the organization.
In our complete Digital Body Language summary, you can learn the specific dos and don’ts for each of these 4 laws, at individual and team levels.
Communicating Effectively Across Differences
People from different gender, generations and cultures interpret things differently and express themselves differently. Such differences and biases can be amplified over digital mediums. Erica Dhawan breaks down the:
- Communication differences between men vs women, digital natives vs digital adapters, and high-context vs low context cultures; and
- Tips for communicating more effectively across these differences.
Getting the Most from Digital Body Language
Our physical and digital body languages are inextricably linked. Smartphones have already changed the way we work and interact, and even the slangs we use. Your fluency with digital body language will increasingly affect your ability to connect and relate to others.
If you want to learn the nuts and bolts for communicating in a digital era, do check out the full book summary bundle that includes an infographic, 18-page text summary, and a 28-minute audio summary.
In the book, Dhawan includes many other personal anecdotes, observations, and tips about digital communications. She also includes 2 appendixes—a style guide for various digital mediums, and exercises for exploring your team members’ digital styles. If you’re interested in these additional examples and resources, do purchase the book or visit (including team assessments, tools and exercises), visit ericadhawan.com.
Learn more about How to Win Friend and Influence People in the Digital Age!
About the Author of Digital Body Language
Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust & Connection, No Matter the Distance is written by Erica Dhawan–an author, speaker and advisor on teamwork, collaboration and innovation. She’s the Founder & CEO of global consultancy firm Cotential. Previously, she worked at Lehman Brothers, Barclays Capital and Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership. She has an MPA from Harvard Kennedy School, MBA from MIT Sloan, and BS at the Wharton School. Dhawan was named by Thinkers50 as the “Oprah of Management Thinkers”.
Digital Body Language Quotes
“Contemporary communication relies more than ever on how we say something rather than on what we say. That is, our digital body language.”
“Disengagement happens not because people don’t want to be empathetic but because with today’s tools, they don’t know how.”
“These days, we don’t talk the talk or even walk the talk. We write the talk.”
“Digital body language may be fundamentally casual, but casual isn’t the same as careless.”
“What is implicit in body language now has to be explicit in our digital body language.”
“In a digital world, who we are online is likely the first impression we show the world and…first impressions matter.”
“When working with other cultures, be curious, not accusing. A question mark is better than an exclamation point.”