The grammar of digital communication

(Book Cover) Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance
Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance 
Author: Erica Dhawan
Publisher:  HarperCollins
Pages: 288
Price: Rs 499

In the introduction to her book Digital Body Language, leadership expert Erica Dhawan writes, “Today, we’re all immigrants learning a new culture and language, except this time it’s in the digital space. Being a good leader today means not only being aware of other people’s signals and cues but also mastering this new digital body language that didn’t exist twenty years ago….”

Think 21st century. Remote work. Multicultural teams. All of this imposes new communication challenges. True, digital communication does not exist in the realm of non-verbal cues — posture, proximity, facial expressions, pauses, volume, and so on — which anthropologist Edward T Hall called “the silent language”. Reading carefully is the new listening, and writing clearly is the new empathy, Ms Dhawan points out. We now draw inferences from digital expressions — word choices, punctuation, response times, video meeting styles, email sign-offs, and the like. But real thoughts and feelings could get masked this way, leading to ambiguity, misunderstanding, disconnect, and much dysfunction in an organisational context.

How can trust and connection be built when screens divide teams most of the time? Ms Dhawan takes off from this question, unpacking the nuances of digital body language, the laws that govern it, and how it plays out across genders, generations, and cultures — all this with a generous sprinkling of stories and personal asides.  

Contemporary communication relies more than ever on how we say something rather than on what  we say. This demands the need to develop an increased sensitivity to nuance, subtext, punctuation, and so on. In the new normal that has emerged, our digital medium choice is the new measure of priority; punctuation and symbols are the new measure of emotion; timing is the new measure of respect; to cc, bcc, and reply all is the new measure of inclusion; and our digital persona is the new measure of identity.

Ms Dhawan presents the four laws of digital body language: Value Visibly (showing appreciation), Communicate Carefully (finding alignment), Collaborate Confidently (redefining teamwork for a digital era), and Trust Totally (putting the first three together to ensure psychological safety among teams). What you model as a leader ultimately shows up in the culture of your teams. If someone challenges your idea and you shut that person down immediately, you further erode a company-wide net of psychological safety while giving your team implicit permission to shut down other members as well, she points out.

She delves into each and every aspect of these laws. Such granularity can detract from reader-friendliness, but Digital Body Language is an exception. The tone remains conversational, and she livens the narrative with some gentle humour. There is, for example, this reference to a running joke at Morgan Stanley about needing fewer characters to express gratitude as the level of seniority rises. “You started your career with Thank you so much! and after a promotion or two, this was cut down to Thanks. Another promotion produced Thx or even TX. One senior leader just wrote T…”. Brevity can make one feel important, but it could also ruin one’s business, the author cautions.

We are also warned against “ghosting”, the act of leaving texts or emails unanswered. The book is packed with several such practical tips. She advises teams to leverage the power of emojis, which she thinks can convey intent and context more clearly. On how to deal with a passive-aggressive colleague, she says if you feel emotionally hijacked, save your email message as a draft and revise and send it when you are in a better mood. Beyond these, the book opens a window to fresh perspectives such as this: “Good leadership is more than just about bending people to your standards or norms; it also involves a willingness to engage across the different digital body language styles present in your workplace. It’s really no different from knowing three or four different languages or regional dialects.”

The play of power and trust gets predictably more complex in the digital sphere. The author offers a matrix to navigate imbalances in workplace relationships. She also explains how brevity, passive-aggressiveness, slow responses, and formality spark anxiety. Talking about culture differences, 

Ms Dhawan cites an interesting example: “Years ago I worked in India, and one day I got an email request from a colleague that read simply, Please do the needful. What did that even mean? But in Indian English, the phrase was, in fact, completely correct, and meant, “Please help me complete this task.” The book draws attention to other subtleties too, which may never strike us  — how we prioritise speed while messaging bosses/clients, but may reduce our responses to one-liners when it comes to juniors; how the pressure on women to appear warm and friendly plays out in the form of “hedging language”; how delayed responses lead to timing anxiety; and so on. 

This book is the perfect guide to create a silo-breaking and trust-filled work environment. Of course, there could still be a chasm between intention and interpretation in digital body language, but Ms Dhawan offers a grammar for this new universal communication that could reduce friction, limit bureaucracy, and also flatten the differences across genders, generations and cultures.

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