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Body language counts. So does tone. Communication depends on the way we convey the words, just not the words themselves.

But in a work world where communication is heavily dependent on screens – even before the remote workplace, a good deal of our communication with colleague and clients was by e-mail and text – recipients of our messages can’t see us or hear us.

The result is poor communications or miscommunication. As well, communications expert Erica Dhawan argues, the loss of non-verbal cues is among the most overlooked reasons why employees feel so disengaged from others.

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The solution she offers is to pay attention to the cues and signals that we are sending with our digital body language and tailoring them to present clear, precise messages.

Digital body language, she says, is praising another person’s input in an e-mail or “liking” a text. It’s making a detailed comment verbally or in the chat box during a video call when somebody expresses an idea. It’s taking a few extra minutes to respond to a text, indicating respect for what it says, or writing a detailed response to an e-mail that shows thought and focus. It’s using exclamation points and emojis, within reason, including the thumbs-up emoji in a video meeting.

In short, it’s about fighting time pressures and the constraints of hand-helds to connect with others and give them positive signals, replacing the traditional cues used to show appreciation, notably a smile. Quick, curt e-mails can send negative signals you don’t intend, particularly hasty responses to barely-read e-mails from colleagues. “Reading the e-mails in our inbox with care and attention is the new art of listening,” she says in her book Digital Body Language.

Punctuation and symbols are the new measure of emotions. Exclamation marks, which have traditionally been used sparingly in written communication, have become widespread and she encourages that trend. Traditionally they were used to indicate urgency, excitement and emphasis. “Today, exclamation points, arranged throughout texts and e-mails, convey friendliness. They have become so obligatory to e-mails that you risk coming off as brusque or cold if you fail to use them. An exclamation point at the end of an email’s opening sentence establishes a heartfelt sentiment that resonates through the rest of the message,” she says.

She says women use a lot more exclamation points than men, replacing the nods, smiles and laughs of female friendship. But she warns against getting carried away!!!! Too many in a row can be bad form. It’s safer to err on the side of minimalism.

Emojis are essential – little faces with a wide emotional range that replace what’s lost when we move from face-to-face conversation to written communication. “Today for even the most skilled communicator, emojis have become an essential shortcut,” she writes.

At the same time, don’t use them to replace words, only to accentuate what is said. Adapt their use to your audience. Young women need to be careful because overuse of emojis implies incompetence at work, one study found.

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Timing is the new measure of respect in a digital writing world. “In a digitally reliant world, the slight pause between messages takes on an almost operatic meaning,” she warns, even though usually a non-immediate answer to an e-mail or text just means the other person got tied up or their battery died. It takes 90 minutes for the average person to reply to an e-mail and 90 seconds for the average person to respond to a text message, research has shown. Each medium of communication has its own associated expectations on timing so you want to keep those guidelines in mind, particularly during business hours, or you’ll be considered rude.

And don’t forget adding profile picture to your e-mails on Outlook or on Zoom. They signal something, and you want them to be clear, professional and warm. It’s part of modern body language, a crucial area of communications we all need to give more thought.

Cannonballs

  • If he had to compress insights he offered while coaching clients over the years, Dan Rockwell says it would be: Forget about perfecting any leadership skill. Strive to develop several leadership skills, but not all at the same time. Develop a skill to 80 per cent and move on; the last 20 per cent isn’t worth it.
  • Help the boss help you through feedback, advises consultant Grant Levitan. A week before you meet for a one-on-one send three questions about where you want to grow, such as “how can I be more strategic” or “how could I have ended the last meeting on a better note?” That gives him or her time to reflect and areas of focus.
  • If you’re willing to voice an opinion you should be willing to change that opinion in the face of better logic or stronger data, argues psychologist Adam Grant.
  • During presentations on Microsoft Teams or Zoom, consultant Dave Paradi recommends using the spotlight function to force your video to be large on everyone’s screen.
  • Basecamp co-founder Jason Fried has taken to listening to podcasts from a year ago. He noticed experts were confident but their predictions often missed the mark because they reason emotionally and have flawed, biased, human opinions. It’s a reminder to be less certain ourselves since no one really knows in the moment.

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