They had been going out for three years when the fight, conducted exclusively via text message, occurred. The fight lasted for hours, back and forth, until at one point, frustrated and weary, Laura tapped out, So r we thru?
I guess so, Dave replied.
Laura was devastated. She called in sick to work the next day, and spent the next 24 hours mourning the loss of her relationship by meeting with friends, looking through old photos, and crying. The next night, Dave appeared on her doorstep. Laura, puffy-eyed, answered the door. “Did you forget about the dinner we planned a few days ago?” he said. “You said we were through,” Laura said. “I meant we were through arguing,” Dave said, “not through as in you and me.”
Most of us have had exchanges like this in our personal lives (though maybe not quite so dramatic)—communications so confusing and crowded with intimations that we spend an entire day trying to make sense of them.
Now take these same dynamics and transfer them to the average workplace.
Jack, a midlevel manager, gets an email from his boss. The last sentence—That’ll be fine.—leaves him anxious. The period that punctuates it seems to dominate the screen, a black bead, a microbomb, lethal, suggestive, and—Jack would swear—disapproving. Did I screw up? Or is he merely overthinking it? If he’s not, how can he work for a boss who’s so oblivious about the implications of a period?
Here’s another: A positive, enthusiastic female boss headquartered in New York is assigned to lead a remote team based in Dallas. One of its members, a young guy named Sam, flies to New York a few months later for his first face-to-face meeting with his new boss. After a good preliminary discussion, the boss asks, “So what were your first impressions of me?” Sam hesitates, then admits they weren’t all that good. Almost all of his boss’s communications were no frills and to the point, leading Sam to believe she was unfriendly, withholding, and probably cold. In person, though, she’s the opposite. What made him feel that way? she asks. Sam had to confess it was because she didn’t use abbreviations or exclamation marks.
When punctuation and acronyms set us off into bouts of uncertainty, self-doubt, anxiety, anger, self-hatred, and mistrust, we can be sure we’re living in unmapped times.
• • • • • •
I grew up reading—and re-reading—the books of Deborah Tannen. In 1990, Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, published her book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. I wasn’t the only one; everyone seemed to be reading Tannen’s book. An analysis of how we talk to one another using indirection, interruption, pauses, humor, and pacing, You Just Don’t Understand dominated national conversations, spent four years on the New York Times bestseller list, and was translated into 30 languages.
None of us needs a linguistics degree to know that the ways we communicate meaning today are more confusing than ever. Why? Well, Tannen studied body language almost exclusively in face-to-face interactions. Her work was informed by linguistics, gender, and evolutionary biology, but also by what you and I convey whenever we cross our arms, look away, or blink. None of us, including Tannen, could have predicted that the majority of our connections would be virtual today. Contemporary communication relies more than ever on how we say something rather than on what we say. That is, our digital body language. When the internet came along, everyone was given a dais and a microphone, but no one was told how to use them. We all just picked things up as we went along. And the mistakes we’ve made along the way have had real consequences in business.
You see, these days, we don’t talk the talk or even walk the talk. We write the talk.
Texts, emails, instant messages, and video calls are ultimately visual forms of communication. What’s more, each of us has different expectations and instincts about whether it’s appropriate to send a text or an email, when to look in the camera during a video call, how long to wait before we write someone back, and how to write a digital thank-you or apology without seeming sloppy or insincere. Our word choices, response times, video meeting styles, email sign-offs, and even our email signatures create impressions that can either enhance or wreck our closest relationships in the workplace (not to mention in our personal lives).
Today, roughly 70 percent of all communication among teams is virtual. We send around 306 billion emails every day, with the average person sending 30 emails daily and fielding 96.1
According to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
, 50 percent of the time the “tone” of our emails is misinterpreted.2 Fifty percent!
Imagine saying “I love you” to your partner, but half the time their response is “Yeah, right.” Have I felt that exact feeling with my husband, Rahul, after a text exchange? Not gonna lie—I’m guilty too!
More data: the New York Times
reports that 43 percent of working Americans spend at least some time working remotely,3
a percentage that skyrocketed during the Covid-19 pandemic. Another study reported that 25 percent of respondents said they socialize more frequently online than in person.4
A 2015 Pew survey found that 90 percent of cell phone owners “frequently” carry their phones with them, with 76 percent admitting they turn off their phones “rarely” or “never.”5
The average person spends nearly 116 minutes every day—that’s about 2 hours—on social media, which over an average lifetime would add up to 5 years and 4 months.6
Psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman was the first to popularize the concept of “emotional intelligence,” or EI, in 1990. Emotional intelligence refers to our ability to read other people’s signals and respond to them appropriately while understanding and appreciating the world from others’ perspectives.
Today, “emotional intelligence” and “empathy” have become buzzwords. They are discussed at roundtables. They are part of every mainstream education curriculum. They show up in value statements across every industry—from professional services to healthcare to technology. And they are trademark words in political campaigns and media conversations. Leaders have sold us on the idea that seeing situations clearly from others’ perspectives can transform leadership styles, work cultures, and business strategies. Empathy, it seems, advances morale, triggers innovation, drives engagement and retention, and raises profits. Surely everyone can agree we need more empathy in the world.
Why, then, are we all facing a crisis of misunderstanding at work?
Well, a big problem is that reading emotion within the digital nature of the modern workplace is difficult. When the concept of emotional intelligence was popularized, the digital era was in its infancy. Email was a barely unwrapped toy. The very first smartphones were thick slabs and rarely appeared at meetings. Texting was what European teenagers did. And video calls were a foreign species. Today, many organizations and communities exist exclusively behind a screen. We’ve shifted the way we create connections and, consequently, how we work with our colleagues as well as our customers, community members, and audiences.
The loss of nonverbal body cues is among the most overlooked reasons why employees feel so disengaged from others. If used properly, and at scale, empathetic body language equals employee engagement. Disengagement happens not because people don’t want to be empathetic but because with today’s tools, they don’t know how. Yes, a CEO can say, “My office door is always open” and tell everyone he’s “accessible” and “approachable.” But what if he’s never actually in the office and the only way to communicate with him is to jump into his daily queue of 200-plus emails or Slack messages?
Most of today’s workplaces, in fact, minimize the conditions necessary to foster and augment clear communication, leading to widespread distrust, resentment, and frustration. There is more physical distance between teams. There are fewer face-to-face interactions. There is virtually no body language to read. Plus, every few months, things seem to get faster (or maybe we’re all just imagining it), leaving us no choice but to adapt to the newest normal. We become more thoughtless. We grow more accepting of distractions and interruptions, more indifferent to the needs and emotions of colleagues and workmates. This digital disconnect leads us to misinterpret, overlook, or ignore signals and cues, creating entirely new waves of organizational dysfunction.
The question is, why?
We are cue-less.
It’s worth repeating: nonverbal cues make up 60 to 80 percent of face-to-face communication.7
Anthropologist Edward T. Hall called these signals and cues—posture, proximity, smiles, pauses, yawns, tone, facial expressions, eye contact, hand gestures, and volume—“the silent language.”
How do we create connection when up to 70 percent of communication among teams takes place digitally?
Our ability to care is compromised.
Remember how a handshake after a job well done used to go a long way toward making you feel valued? Today, when team members work in different spheres, departments, offices, and countries, a handshake is impossible. One research study inserted very small delays into video calls to assess how colleagues judged one another. For delays of only 1.2 seconds, people were more likely to be rated as less attentive, friendly, and self-disciplined than if there was no delay.8
Even on video chats, a frozen screen or a weird echo makes it hard for attendees to feel that their contributions are being heard and valued,
leaving us with the question:
How do we show appreciation nowadays?
Our timing is off. When someone standing two feet away asks us a question, we respond instantly. We also know when a conversation has come to a natural end. But today, we are no longer obliged to respond to someone immediately (we have stuff to do!). At the same time, responding to employees’ or clients’ “urgent” texts five hours later may leave them feeling ignored and resentful.
How can we find the balance between busy inboxes and response times that convey respect?
Our screens have altered...