A sideways glance in a video chat. An email that drifts off into ellipses. And why did your boss even add you to this calendar invite anyway?
What does it all mean?
We were once fluent in the nonverbal cues of the physical office. Slumped shoulders or a downcast look were enough to know when the boss was disappointed or a colleague stressed. A cryptic email often only necessitated rotating our chairs 180 degrees to get clarification from the sender.
Besides, we had all day to figure it out, gleaning little hints from the walk to refill our coffee cups or the minutes spent mingling before meetings. Now our work interactions are boiled down to 15-minute peeks into each others’ lives on Zoom calls, or a volley of emails with no additional context. Trying to read body language through a screen has become another exhausting part of the workday.
There are still plenty of ways to read nonverbal cues if you know where to look. Start with people’s movements during video calls—a colleague crossing her arms could signal she’s closed off to an idea or has some information you’re not considering. A quickening or slowing blink rate can signify stress. And pay attention to eyebrows. Eyebrows pointing down toward the middle of your nose indicate anger; eyebrows in a neutral position but curled up in the middle point to sadness.
The approach isn’t foolproof. That colleague with the crossed arms could just be feeling cold. Consider body language your tip that you need to probe deeper to find out what’s really going on with someone.
The gestures we’ve been raised on our whole lives, they’re continuing, but they don’t command the same meaning they once did.
Take staring. Gazing directly into someone’s eyes for more than one to two seconds is interpreted as intimacy or a precursor to conflict, triggering our fight-or-flight response. Now we lock eyes all day on Zoom. And our images on screen are generally bigger than typical personal space would afford in the office. The perceived closeness can make us uncomfortable, or convince us we’re held in higher regard by a meeting attendee than we actually are.
A manager of practice growth at the same firm, has found herself freezing on video calls nearly daily due to a poor internet connection. When the frame includes a furrowed brow, colleagues can get the wrong message. “We were worried that maybe she was offended by something we said,” says the anonymous, a colleague who was recently on a call where everyone laughed at a shared joke, except for a silent, angry-looking. It was just another freeze.
Written communication can be just as fraught. People are tripped up by everything from the brevity of emails—nothing chills like a reply that’s just a single question mark—to the timing. “A phone call is worth a thousand emails,” anonymous says.