For this week’s newsletter, I interviewed my good friend Erica Dhawan. Erica is a go-to thought leader on collaboration and a passionate communication junkie. In her latest WSJ bestselling book, Digital Body Language, she combines cutting edge research with engaging storytelling to decode the new signals and cues that have replaced traditional body language in our hybrid world.
How did your upbringing and being caught between two cultures lead you to pursue a career path focused on collaboration and connection?
As a first-generation American born to Indian parents, I pivoted between the thickly accented English of my parents and my own bad Hindi. I spent a lot of my childhood trying to fit in, but there weren’t many girls who looked like me in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. At the same time, I felt almost no allegiance to India. Whenever I visited, my family always referred to me as “the American-born cousin.” Wanting to feel like I belonged somewhere, I developed a few tricks, one of which was the ability to decipher other people’s body language.
Body Language offered the key to understanding the foreign worlds around me. I watched the popular girls with their heads high and the cool kids slouching during school assemblies. I learned to decode what my Hindi-speaking family members were saying to me by their furrowed brows or crossed arms. My interest in nonverbal communication continued throughout college and ultimately influenced my career path as a keynote speaker and author to help others collaborate more effectively across generational, cultural, and gender divides and in our global and hybrid workforces.
What is digital body language, and why is it so important now that so many of us are in a hybrid work environment?
Digital Body Language serves the same purpose as traditional body language does in our face-to-face conversations and is important for all of the same reasons. We rely on non-verbal body language cues to connect and build trust with one another—and those skills are even harder to translate across a screen.
We now infuse digital body language, which are the cues and signals that make up the subtext of our online messages. In the hybrid office, our digital communication tools—emails, text messaging, Zoom—have the potential of creating widespread misunderstanding and anxiety. Our word choices, response times, video meeting styles, punctuations, and email signatures form impressions that can either enhance or damage our work relationships with colleagues, bosses, and clients. In today’s digital world, building empathy and trust is no longer about what we say but how we say it with our digital body language.
In your book, you talk about four laws of digital body language. What are these laws, and how can implementing them together create 360-degree engagement?
The four laws of digital body language are Value Visibly, Communicate Carefully, Collaborate Confidently, and Trust Totally. The first law, Value Visibly, is about being attentive and aware of others, while also communicating that “I understand you” and “I appreciate you.” In a digital setting, respect means honoring other people’s time and schedules and not canceling meetings at the last second or delaying your response to an email so long that people have to chase you down. It means not using the mute button during a conference call to attend to five other things as someone is talking.
The second law, Communicate Carefully, involves making a continuous effort to minimize the risk for misunderstanding and misinterpretation by being as clear as possible in your words and digital body language. It means keeping employees and teams informed and up-to-date, and then checking in constantly to support their efforts. From realizing that a “brief” message is not always a “clear” one, to eliminating tone-deaf language, to everything in between, communicating carefully restores the alignment lost to lack of clarity.
The third law, Collaborate Confidently, is about the freedom to take conscious risks while trusting that others will support your decisions. It involves prioritizing thoughtfulness while reducing groupthink behavior. This might mean allowing the remote member of a team to moderate a live meeting, creating a sense of inclusion and also reducing the bias we tend to have toward in-person teammates. It could mean using the virtual chat in a video meeting to collect team opinions before calling on people with different ideas to speak up instead of listening to the loudest people who agree with one another first.
The fourth and final law, Trust Totally, means you have an open team culture, where everyone knows they’re listened to and where everyone can always ask one another for help. No one wastes time sweating the small stuff, where an ambiguously worded message or late-to-arrive response doesn’t automatically give rise to fear or anxiety and where we confidently assume everyone is on our side. A Trust Totally workplace environment only happens after the first three laws have been implemented, yielding 360-degree engagement.
Can you give us some examples of what good digital body language looks like, in practice?
As I describe in Digital Body Language, reading carefully is the new listening, and writing clearly is the new empathy. Before you send off that next email, pause and make sure that it is communicating the right message to the receiver. Every communication channel brings with it a set of underlying meanings and subtexts, so ask yourself if an email is the best way to convey the urgency and importance of the message or if a Slack or phone call would be a more efficient option.
When we type, we move at lightning speed, which costs us accuracy, clarity, and respect. While brevity can make a person appear important, it can also hurt your team and your business. Getting an ambiguous email means the recipient has to spend time deciphering what it means, causing delays and potentially leading to costly mistakes. Proofreading emails before sending them to avoid making digital errors and if you don’t have time to give a thoughtful attention to an email, send a quick reply acknowledging you received the message and that you plan to get back to it at greater length as soon as possible.
What does the future hold for digital communication and collaboration at work?
As the future becomes increasingly digital and even the most conservative, long-lasting fields and businesses look to reinvent themselves virtually, it’s more crucial than ever to master a common digital body language in order to enable clarity, speed, and efficiency. When I was writing my book, I learned that understanding the nuances of digital body language doesn’t merely solve problems, but it also opens up deeper, better ways for all of us to relate to one another and foster a sense of inclusion and belonging. In the work environment, this reduces friction, limits bureaucracy, and flattens the differences across genders, generations, and cultures. Alleviating a widespread source of professional confusion and pain, we can access a much broader diversity of perspectives and ideas. By establishing clear digital body language norms, we can succeed in the modern workplace and build stronger trust, connection, and authenticity among our teams in the future.