Nonverbal Communication in a Digital World

Last modified 19 March 2024
Nonverbal Communication in a Digital World

Think of effective communication and you’ll often think of words: spoken words, written words. But this is only one type of communication, and the name for it is verbal communication. While we’re taught from an early age that a “verb” is a “doing” (or action) word; the term verbal refers to anything related to, or in the form of, words.

However a lot of our communication doesn’t rely on speaking or writing words. In fact, psychologist Albert Mehrabian, who researched body language in the 1950s, found that words play only a small part in the impact of the message we’re trying to convey; tone of voice and intonation accounted for 38 per cent, while our nonverbal cues made up 55 per cent. Words themselves? Just seven per cent.

So, nonverbal communication is understandably important.

What is Nonverbal Communication?

Nonverbal communication encompasses everything that we use to convey information, meaning, context or emotion that doesn’t rely on words. Forms of nonverbal communication can include eye contact, gestures, facial expressions, body language, touch and tone of voice.

The sheer range of nonverbal ways we can communicate shows that we can say an awful lot by saying nothing at all.

Maintaining regular eye contact, for example, can help coworkers feel valued and appreciated while using engaging facial expressions can encourage a positive reaction. Hand gestures can help convey emphasis or meaning, while a positive tone of voice can provide energy and motivation.

Nonverbal communication can even come in the form of how you sit or stand (what does it really say if you’re slouching in a meeting?) and your appearance (you’ve not bothered to comb your hair today – are you genuinely engaged in all of this?).

In short, nonverbal communication techniques are hugely important.

Why is nonverbal communication important?

“Nonverbal communication gives often-critical nuance to the words that are said,” says Professor Ingrid Day, Academic Dean at the Australian Institute of Business (AIB).

“What is communicated in words is given relational and attitudinal context when accompanied by visible body language. Postures and expressions such as slouching, smiling, folded arms and avoiding eye contact are all examples of how verbal communication can be profoundly impacted by nonverbal cues – both positively and negatively.”

But then, of course, a global pandemic threw us an almighty curveball.

In addition to the countless challenges it presented, it also took away much of our ability to – consciously or subconsciously – communicate nonverbally through body language and appearance.

At the same time, it increased the need to communicate nonverbally, thanks to our consequential reliance on emails and other digital messaging channels – and it needs careful management.

“Video calls have replaced many face-to-face meetings, so you can lose some key nonverbal communication aspects,” says Dr Alicia Stanway, Lecturer in Leadership at AIB.

“For example, you should always have the video on during calls to demonstrate that you’re engaged in the conversation and honour your colleagues’ time – having your video off may indicate you’re doing other work. This can actually serve a really great tool when delivering a pitch because while we’d normally scan the room, we rarely have the opportunity to look at a consolidated screen of reactions.”

Strategies for nonverbal communication at work

Mastering the Art of Online Meetings

While video meetings have been something of a blessing over the past year or so, and in some respects have broken down a natural hierarchy present within a physical meeting, it has changed the element of nonverbal communication between participants; a nod of encouragement, a gesture of approval.

And it’s forced us to rethink how effective our communication skills actually are.

There are a few ways those nonverbal communication techniques that are present in face-to-face conversation can be replaced online – from using the chat function to offer support to using emojis to convey sentiment. All of these methods of communication deepen the experience and begin to replace what’s been lost when you’re not face-to-face.

Don’t lose empathy and maintain the social pleasantries

With reduced face-to-face and verbal communication comes an increase in emails – and if you’re relying on words alone, you need to continually sense-check how your words may be interpreted. After all, you don’t want your communication style to be holding you back.

In the office, an email devoid of pleasantries may be fine – the sender and recipient may have exchanged greetings earlier in the day. When working remotely, however, the tone and intonation of an email can be interpreted in a number of different ways. So, when sending emails, put yourself in the recipient’s shoes – how could this be interpreted?

Inject a soft introduction, a greeting. Wherever possible, add context to the email – explain why something’s important, for example – without turning each email into a thesis.

Also read: 6 Reasons Why Effective Communications Should be a Focus in Your Business. 

Convey emotional context with emojis

Just as emojis can play an important part in video meetings, they can in emails too. Whether or not they’re suitable for customer and client communication is a business decision that’s down to the individual organisation, but internally an emoji can go a long way to conveying sentiment and feeling, as it adds another communication dimension to the words you’re using.

When working remotely, you’re taking away the incidental – nonverbal – communication, the rapport and the context, and it’s important to consciously replace those aspects.

“The water-cooler conversations are also being missed,” says Dr Stanway, “so there needs to be a way of informally communicating to bring ideas, innovations and other things to the table.”

Nonverbal communication should be prioritised

For any business, the tone of all communication must be set from the top – and here it’s imperative that leaders in any organisation set the standard and expectation.

“Here at AIB, we use Slack for checking in with each other, discussing ideas and communicating informally,” says Dr Stanway. “The reason it works so well is because our CEO Jo Thomas uses it well. This sets the expectation and the standard for all of us, as we follow the example she sets – and that type of leadership is critically important for successful communication in today’s workplace.”

Also read: The Importance of Face-To-Face Communication in the Digital Age.

Comment below your top nonverbal communication tips and advice.

*The Australian Institute of Business (AIB) is Australia’s largest provider of MBAs. Source Ready, B. (2023) Domestic Enrolments Surged During COVID After International Students Locked Out, MBA News. Available at: MBA News.

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