What Your Zoom Body Language Says About You

zoom body language with cat
Don't get caught lying down on the job. Body language on Zoom matters. Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

We all understand the importance of body language at work—the way that a colleague's crossed arms might convey hostility or a manager's feet on the desk might be an attempt to show dominance. But how does that translate into the digital realm, now that so many of us are working from home and conducting much of our business lives through online video?

That's where Erica Dhawan comes in. Erica is the author of Get Big Things Done and the forthcoming Digital Body Language, and recently joined me on my weekly Newsweek interview show Better (Thursdays 12 p.m. ET/9 a.m. PT) to discuss how professionals can communicate more effectively when they're operating digitally. She shared the following four tips.

Digital body language isn't just about your body. You might imagine that the phrase "digital body language" simply refers to your facial expressions when you're on Zoom. Of course, you want to make sure you're not scowling on camera or looking bored, Dhawan says, but digital body language is a much broader concept.

As she notes, "Digital body language is [about] the cues and signals that we send in our digital communication that make up the subtext of our messages. So it's everything from the subject line that we use [in our emails] to our response time: Did we reply in two minutes or in five minutes or in five days?"

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Dorie Clark (left), host of "Better," Newsweek's LinkedIn Live interview series, and Erica Dhawan, author of the upcoming "Digital Body Language"

Even subtle choices, like whether you CC or BCC someone, or the punctuation you use in an email and whether it seems abrupt, are part of the context in which your messages are received. In other words, the choice to address a message as "Dear Erica" vs. "Hey Erica!" is part of how we "project through the body of our language," according to Dhawan.

Reading carefully is the new listening. Nobody likes it when you're in a meeting and a colleague seems to be tuning out or not paying attention. That's true on a video chat, as well. But Dhawan says the same principle now extends to written communication, which has become so much more prevalent during work-from-home. She cites the example of one executive who sent a text message to his boss, Tom, asking, "'Do you want to speak Wednesday or Thursday?' And Tom's response to that was 'yes.'" That created confusion and wasted time with additional follow-up.

More to the point, Dhawan says, that carelessness can cause people to lose trust in their leaders. Conversely, she says, "If you're showing that you've read things, that will lead to a whole new level of understanding, collaboration and trust in your work environments."

Give video a rest sometimes. You might think it's a good idea to have all your meetings on video, in order to maximize engagement. That's true up to a point, says Dhawan, but screen fatigue is real and video isn't a panacea. "In video communication, there are a lot of nuances. There are screen freezes, or you're on mute, or there are interruptions that actually can get in the way of psychological safety when people are brainstorming ideas," she says.

"There's also the fact that it's not natural for us to actually see our own video on the camera, while we're trying to talk to other people." This can be particularly jarring for introverts, she notes, who may feel pressure to be "on," if they're on camera. As an antidote, she recommends prioritizing whether a meeting should take place via video—not all of them have to—and holding some via phone, or even just having an email exchange if the topic is straightforward. If a meeting does rise to the level of video, she advises holding it before 2 p.m., "so people don't have that Zoom exhaustion later in the day."

Adapt your style to the medium. Just as you'd likely adjust your physical body language for various circumstances, Dhawan says you should do the same digitally. "In face-to-face, traditional body language," she says, "if you're meeting someone for the first time, you may shake their hand, greet them with direct eye contact and sit down at the table with a clear agenda to run through a meeting with a PowerPoint presentation." In contrast, she notes, "If you're meeting with someone that you've known for a long time, you may see them and hug them."

Similarly, "If you're meeting someone that you've never met before, and maybe they're senior to you in a company or someone you're trying to sell something to, you would send an email to their assistant to get on their calendar. You wouldn't just send them a quick text." Meanwhile, "If this is someone who is a long-time colleague or your assistant or your teammate, you may just jump on the phone because you're running around while homeschooling your kid, or you send a one-liner email saying, 'Call me right now.'" There's no universal right or wrong way to handle digital body language, she says—only right or wrong for a given set of circumstances, and we should adapt accordingly.

We're all living in a digital world now, so it's more important than ever to be clear on the messages we're sending. By following these strategies, we can begin to regain control over our digital body language and how we're perceived.

Dorie Clark, author of Entrepreneurial You and Duke University Fuqua School of Business professor, hosts Newsweek's weekly interview series, Better, on Thursdays at 12 p.m. ET/9 a.m. PT. Learn more and download her free Stand Out self-assessment.

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