Words you read in an email impact your day as much as those spoken across a desk. Refining how you speak to others in digital communications—including texts, emails, and phone and video calls—can be the difference between a positive interaction, and a social or professional faux pas.

Erica Dhawan has been studying communication for 15 years. Her latest book, Digital Body Language, is even more relevant now that the pandemic has seen digital communication replace many in-person meetings. “Digital body language was a critical skill pre-pandemic, but in the last year, it has exploded in ways that I never imagined,” she says.

Digital communication takes away many of the innate tools we’ve come to rely on when expressing ourselves, and interpreting other people’s words. Micro facial expressions, hand gestures, posture, and tone all get lost over Zoom and email. That’s why digital etiquette demands that we not only pay attention to other people’s communications, but we make our own intentions very clear. “Reading messages carefully is the new listening, and writing clearly is the new empathy,” Erica says.

In this episode of SUCCESS Stories, Erica tells Chief Storytelling Officer Kindra Hall how to handle unclear emails, the golden rules of Zoom calls, and what your punctuation might say about you. 

Be extra thoughtful when communicating over email.

Conveying tone is especially hard over email or text, so take extra care to make sure you’re not coming across as rude or aggressive. Shooting off a one-line email in ALL CAPS might be time efficient: but for someone on the receiving end, it can read as snappy. 

Consider your punctuation use. As Erica explains, about half of people perceive texts that end with a period as angry. Exclamation points can either signal excitement or anger. Even emojis can be read in different ways: is that smiley really happy, or is it a passive-aggressive dig? 

Another way to show consideration for your recipients is through formatting. Don’t send walls of text: use bullet points, bolding, underlines and subheadings to break your messages up into a readable format. Not only does this spare your reader’s eyes, it means they’re more likely to absorb the information.

Ask for clarification.

Your colleague has just sent you an email that feels curt. Not only do you not understand exactly what they need you to do, but you’re now worrying that they’re angry for some reason. 

Before you panic, consider the context. Ask yourself: 

Thinking about what’s going on with the person on the other end of the conversation can help shed light on why they’re using a certain tone, Erica says. If you need more information in order to do your job, send a reply explaining that you just want to make sure you understand what they need, and ask specific questions.

Look directly into the camera on video calls.

Since the pandemic upended communication, video calls have become the dominant medium of legal proceedings, schooldays, council meetings, late night shows, and happy hours. Even at this stage, many people are struggling to adapt to the new set of demands this format places on us: but Erica has guidelines to help.

First, don’t look at the pictures of your co-workers (and tear your eyes away from the mini you in the corner of your screen.) Look right into the camera: this feels wrong because it means you can’t see them, but the image of you they’re seeing will look directly at them. Ironically, doing it this way will make it seem like you’re making eye contact.

Don’t be afraid to use your living space as your background—as long as it’s clean and SFW. The pandemic has put all of us into our colleagues’ and acquaintances’ homes and personal lives, often in positive ways, and that authenticity can actually be refreshing. But keep your pets and children out of the room, especially if it’s an important call.

Last but not least, be on time. Erica says that virtual meetings have made people less patient than ever with lateness, and being punctual signals that you respect the people you’re meeting.

Don’t get trapped in an anxiety spiral.

Feeling like someone is being rude to you on a digital platform hurts just as much as someone being rude to you in person. If anything, the brevity, lack of clarity, difficulty with assessing tone and constant availability of digital communications means it might actually be easier to overthink them. 

Try not to fall into a spiral of anxious ruminations over the emoji your co-worker used, or the fact your friend ended that last sentence in a period instead of an exclamation point. Erica calls this being “emotionally hijacked.” One tool that can help, she says, is to go into every digital interaction assuming that the other person’s intentions are good. The more likely explanation for that abrupt email is that they’re busy—not secretly seething.

If you do find yourself having an emotional reaction, put the phone down. Especially if it’s at the end of the day. Instead of firing off a response in the heat of the moment, sleep on it, and write from a more objective emotional place the next morning. The delete button will always be there, but you can’t un-send an email.

SUCCESS Stories is no longer releasing new episodes on the SUCCESS Podcast Network, but you can still listen to the full conversation below.

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