Feeling misunderstood via email or Slack? Here’s how to win in a work-from-home world.
If you’ve had the privilege of working from home for the last year or so, you’ve probably experienced email anxiety or Zoom fatigue. They’re both the unfortunate result of communicating with coworkers pretty much entirely online. Where you used to have in-person meetings with your boss that left you feeling a little unsettled, now you have to spend hours analyzing the meaning of her curt email — or even her emojis.
While Slack, Google Meet, and email make the modern workplace go ‘round, they also offer up plenty of opportunities for misunderstandings. Collaboration expert Erica Dhawan devoted her new book, Digital Body Language, to giving employees and bosses email etiquette strategies to eliminate frustration and overcome disagreements. (It’s coming at the perfect time: She conducted a 2021 study which found that the average person wastes about four hours per week on poor digital communication, and that one-third of employees are dissatisfied with how their managers communicate.)
And for women who still struggle with getting the right tone on Slack or Skype —the gender communication gap is real — here’s an excerpt from Digital Body Language that’ll help you “speak” clearly online and level the playing field at work.
Every day, the pressure on women to appear warm and friendly plays out in the form of hedging language—for example, “filler” words that many women embed into their texts and emails to make them appear less harsh or assertive. The most common examples include adding “I think” or “I’m wondering if” before stating an opinion, or adding “but I’m not sure” or “but what do you think?” at the end of a sentence, when in reality you’re probably completely sure, and in fact positive you’re right!
I’m hardly immune to this. I once had to reach out to a client about an extremely late payment. I wrote what I thought was a business-like email and then asked my husband to read it over, as I often do with important correspondence. He kindly and swiftly ripped it apart. “You don’t need to say ‘just,’” he said. (After saying how I hoped she was doing well—exclamation point!—I told her I was “just” writing to inquire about the overdue payment, and “just” hoped she’d look into it.) “Say what you mean. You don’t have to tiptoe around it. She owes you money, remember?” I took my husband’s advice, rewrote the email and pressed Send. In the end, the presence — or absence — of fillers didn’t make any difference!
Eager to be more conscious of my own hedging language, I stumbled onto a Gmail plug-in called Just Not Sorry, which highlights hedging language in any email. A steely, tough-minded reality check. Just Not Sorry lets users hover over an underlined phrase and explains how others are likely to perceive it. Well, Just Not Sorry underlined many more sentences than I expected — and taught me what years of business experience couldn’t.
As a manager, you have to understand that people oftentimes need different things in order to feel valued and be able to communicate carefully. Phone call? Email? Private or group message? A text? A personal meeting? We might not always realize it, but the choice we make isn’t just based on whether or not it’s practical, or fast. Our decision also conveys the level of interest we have in hearing from different voices on our team. As everyone knows, some team members are eager to speak up in a face-to-face meeting, whereas others hang back, preferring to express themselves more comfortably in a virtual chat room.
By closely studying these divisions, you’ll discover that many are gendered.
Communicating online can create advantages in overcoming the perceived (and often real) biases against women that make many of us feel too inhibited to say something. Research studies from Carnegie Mellon show that female students are more likely to ask their professors questions online than in their offices. Similarly, in my experience, women in lower parts of the corporate hierarchy are often more likely to provide input by email than speak up in face-to-face business meetings.
As linguist Naomi Baron points out, digital communication serves an important function for women. “Using written communication online allows you to take on any persona you want, with anyone. You can mask your gender, you can mask your accent or dialect.” Digital communication also allows women to avoid uncomfortable confrontations, Baron adds. Why? Because text-based communication de-emphasizes traditional signs of confidence and leadership, such as the timbre of a voice or uncrossed legs. In male-dominated workplaces, it offers an effective and even unprecedented way for women to share power and decision-making authority—a phenomenon that can begin to level the gender-imbalanced playing field.
Still, the issues of youth, and even femininity, remain. I’m no stranger to either. Ten years ago, when I started my business, I found myself in my early thirties, a player in the thought leadership space that was otherwise composed mostly of older white men. I began noticing that when I used either the phone or email to sell my services to senior executives, I got twice as much business as I did when selling my services in face-to-face meetings.
Counterintuitive? Sure. Isn’t trust built up in person? Later I concluded that my youthful face and not-always-gregarious body language brought out the bias of older male executives. During face-to-face meetings, I heard more questions like “How long have you been doing this?” or “Can you send me more client reference names?” I got the doubtful questions less often on the phone. Even in video calls, my onscreen presence felt ageless and my ideas mattered more than my visual cues. We discussed the content I was planning on delivering and the value I could offer, and what’s more, I always negotiated better fees. Today, I still do face-to-face meetings as often as possible, especially when I haven’t met the person yet, but experience has taught me that calling someone to follow up an email diffuses potential gender bias, or outright sexism, since prospective clients lack the distraction of visual cues.
In general, women create tight-knit, conversational communities online and off. Just as often they use direct messages to vent, (digitally) roll their eyes, or make fun of male-gendered communication. Quartz reporter Leah Fessler once wrote, “The pressure that exists in public channels to preface or cushion comments and links disappears in DMs and private groups.” Fessler added, “I, too, become far more direct, and simply myself, over DMs.” While it’s true that many mixed-gendered groups foster support and encouragement, the fact remains that many women still feel more at ease conversing among, well, other women.
Before choosing a primary mode of communication, leaders should consider asking both the men and the women on their team which ones they prefer. Or use a poll or survey to gather preliminary thoughts from team members before meeting. What’s the best platform to discuss this? Phone conference, Zoom, or something else? If you’re not a team leader yet, take the initiative by asking your boss about his or her preference. One deputy commissioner of an organization once told me, “The first time I meet a new boss, I ask about how to best communicate with them. Give me your instruction manual. Be so effective in your communication based on their style and get into the position where you can create the culture.”
Modified excerpt from Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance by Erica Dhawan. Copyright © 2021 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.