When’s the last time you gave someone an enthusiastic thumbs up? Come on, do it. Right now. Big thumbs up. It’s a happy thumb, isn’t it? That thumb is almost smiling it’s so positive and happy. But, did you know that the thumbs up gesture in some parts of the world is viewed as obscene? Like, middle finger obscene. Not so happy now, are you thumb..?
Body language and body gesturing are the most basic and fundamental forms of expression that humans use to communicate with each other. It is, rightly or wrongly, the mechanism behind our ability to make snap judgements about people. In fourth century BC Greece, you knew an upper class man from his upright, ‘firm’ stance and leisurely long strides. In Classical Rome, strict and limited gestures were viewed as indicators of an even tempered and self-controlled character – definite must haves of the day if you were a Roman aristocrat and orator.
For most of us, body language is unconscious. When you give the OK sign after falling and hurting yourself, for example, you don’t stop and think “Hmmm, should I give this OK sign with my right hand or left?” You just do it. Most of us aren’t consciously aware when we squint, or where our hands instinctively go when we are uncomfortable, but for those in certain fields – government, security, business – the science of body language is a gold mine of information.
According to ex-FBI agent and author Joe Navarro, people begin to show signs of discomfort when communicating by furrowing their forehead and crinkling their nose upwards. If someone squints, covers or rubs their eyes — that’s a sign of discomfort. If they compress or bite their lips, or touch their neck, that’s another giveaway. If you spot any of these behaviours it means there’s an issue that needs to be addressed, and you should immediately try to identify the problem.
That’s all well and good, but communicators today are facing something historically unique. The rapid advancements in mobile technology and the explosive growth of social media has changed how we communicate. According to Neilsen, one out of every two Americans will have a smartphone by December 2011, compared to just one in 10 in 2008. Today, we have ‘friends’ who we’ve never even met. So, how are we adapting to this faceless, body language free method of communicating?
Well, anyone involved in social media marketing and engagement today should find this next bit of anthropological information extremely interesting. Scientists have found that when the traditional markers of trust, such as voice intonation and body language, are hidden and only text is available, participants judge trustworthiness based on how quickly others respond.
Take for example, Southwest Airlines – vs – Kevin Smith. When the filmmaker was famously bumped from a flight because of his bulk, he immediately took to Twitter. Southwest Airlines responded to him – via Twitter – at 11:14pm on a Saturday evening. Their behavior towards Smith notwithstanding, that Saturday night response showed them to be responsive to customer complaints, and most likely earned them some Brownie points.
But we all know that responding quickly can sometimes be dangerous. You reply in the heat of the moment, or you react to something based on the mood you are currently in – and your message is misunderstood, or worse, ends up accidentally offending people. Here are a few easy things to think about, to ensure that your message is clear and concise and free of any passive aggressive undertones.
- Check your tone. If there’s any way that what *you* think is tonally funny could be misinterpreted, then delete and rewrite your message.
- Think about who you are communicating with before hitting send. Your boss or another member of the CSuite might not ‘get’ your written subtleties the same way they might if you were speaking face to face. Remember that an eyebrow arch or a smile, cues that you would use in person to illustrate irony or humour, are missing in text.
- Read your message aloud before sending. This is a really easy one, but incredibly effective. Tone tends to be evident aurally, and chances are you’ll hear harsh wording or unintended sarcasm before you will sense it by reading alone.
- Step away from the keyboard. Especially if you are responding to a contentious issue or a difficult colleague. Urgent or not, once you’ve written your response, take an extra minute or two to clear your head prior to hitting send. Take some deep breaths. Then re-read (out loud!) and re-word if necessary.
What do you think? Have you ever been called on the carpet for an email or text that was completely misconstrued (I have!)? Or have you been the one who misinterpreted someone’s tone or intentions? What did you learn from those experiences? How do make up for the lack of visual and aural cues when communicating with people online? We would love your thoughts on this subject.