April 8, 2021

3 Body Language Tips for Enhancing Your Virtual Communication Skills

Body language is just as powerful in the virtual zone as it is in an in-person situation. From the nuance of gestures to vocal variety and eye movements, these telltale indicators help us deliver our messages effectively and provide instructions on how to read another person’s true attitude or feelings. In the work-from-anywhere era of global teams, intentional nonverbal virtual communication is the key to getting our messages across to the other side of the screen.

When we confer over video calls, our bodies must project amplified nonverbal cues to boost our meanings and intentions. Essentially, when online, we must turn up all our nonverbal communication — especially when we’re working with global, intercultural teams. Research shows that cultural awareness and empathy are the building blocks for communicative success in global teams using virtual channels.

Nonverbal cues are crucial to conveying our messages and our openness in our online intercultural communication, especially when linked to verbal anchors. This is especially true when deepening that primal pattern of intention for any global audience: trust. In fact, smiling when delivering content has been shown to boost happiness and pleasure chemicals in our brains. The key to amplifying nonverbal signals online is not only harmonizing your gestures with spoken meanings but also harmonizing nonverbals with the feedback you intend to send when actively listening.

Emerging technologies offer exciting new ways for global teams to collaborate around the world.  As trainers of professionals at global entities such as the United Nations and New York University, we’ve found that decisive nonverbals can allow us to strengthen meaning, resolve discrepancies, and enhance the bond uniting us with our virtually connected colleagues. Use the following tips to enhance your cultural communication skills in the virtual zone:

1. Backchanneling

While people speak, listeners provide cues of understanding through what linguists call “backchanneling.” Think of the “uh-huhs” and “mm-hmms” you often hear during phone calls and meetings. Backchanneling happens all around us and, although it is often not as apparent online, it is even more important in the virtual zone.

Considered a form of paralanguage, backchanneling cues are universal in all languages in some form or another as a nonverbal means to respond and keep conversations flowing. Data supports the idea that these cues are abundant across cultures and age groups, with some slight variations. (For example, the use of “uh” tends to increase with age while “um” tends to decrease.)

Perhaps the most prominent example of backchanneling is head-nodding, where fast head-nodding conveys a strong willingness to speak, and slow head-nodding conveys understanding or acknowledgment. Intercultural research even shows that slightly tilting your head while listening builds trust with audiences while demonstrating willful, vulnerable, and receptive communication.

Taking an audit of others’ backchanneling signals and being aware of your own subtle cues can help you shape more effective intercultural communication in virtual situations.

Illustration by Rod Sánchez

2. Telltale Shoulders

There is more to nonverbal cues than facial expressions and hand gestures. The shoulders are also a telltale sign of one’s emotions, whether someone displays broad, leveled shoulders commanding respect and confidence or raised shoulders indicating uncertainty, doubt, or lack of knowledge. Research has shown that shoulder display is a varied cultural bellwether across world societies. For example, shrugging can signal hesitation or uncertainty in Western cultures, but it carries much less meaning in Eastern cultures.

Overall, ensure your shoulder signals align with the true intent and meaning of your words. When used effectively, a broad shoulder display can emphasize your confidence when speaking and serve as a useful barometer of authenticity in our virtual exchanges.

3. Implied or Stated?

Finally, be mindful of what you state outright and what you imply with nonverbals when communicating in virtual intercultural teams.

For example, high-context cultures tend to emphasize implicit nonverbal elements of communication, while low-context cultures tend to listen closely for explicit verbal messages. In other words, some cultures place less emphasis on the words themselves, whereas others place more focus on direct oral expression. Be aware of both contexts when videoconferencing, as it is easy to focus on one aspect of communication more than the other.

Also, keep in mind the implicit nature of head-nodding in some Eastern cultures. While head-nodding may seem to those in Western cultures to indicate “yes,” these cues may simply be a means of actively participating in a conversation in Eastern culture. When combined with a keen awareness of our spoken words, our gaze direction, vocal nuances, and head gestures can amplify the verbal messages we send and receive in the virtual zone.

Gestures are messages in themselves. Our body language has the power to solidify our spoken and unspoken messages in the virtual zone. However, this online space can be wrought with uncertainty, so make sure to use congruous nonverbals that align with your spoken words for intercultural audiences. Use gestural shifts purposefully to communicate larger shifts in verbal meaning on the screen while also providing backchannel cues to give responsive feedback to speakers to build an effective nonverbal exchange.

The amplified body language of both the listener and the speaker affects success in virtual communication. In other words, whether in a group meeting, interview, or regular one-on-one interaction with a colleague, the listener must participate nonverbally in the exchange just as much as the speaker for communication to be successful. As interfaces evolve online, both audiences and speakers should be deliberate with nonverbal communication to build rapport and foster an online communication culture of trust. This, ultimately, leads to greater global understanding and collaboration.

Raúl Sánchez is a clinical assistant professor and the corporate program coordinator at New York University’s School of Professional Studies. Dan Bullock is a language and communications specialist/trainer at the United Nations Secretariat and a faculty member within the Division of Programs in Business at New York University’s School of Professional Studies. Raúl and Dan are the coauthors of How to Communicate Effectively With Anyone, Anywhere (Career Press, March 2021). 

Rod Sánchez is a lead user experience/user interface designer at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and has designed and illustrated book covers for Penguin Random House and Scholastic.

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Raúl Sánchez is an award-winning clinical assistant professor and the corporate program coordinator at New York University's School of Professional Studies. He has designed and delivered corporate trainings for Deloitte and the United Nations, as well as been a writing consultant for Barnes & Noble Press and PBS. Raúl was awarded the NYU School of Professional Studies Teaching Excellence Award and specializes in linguistics and business communication. He contributes to Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, HuffPost, Business.com, openDemocracy, and Thrive Global, where he writes about the intersection of global business communication, leadership, and intercultural communication.

Dan Bullock is a language and communications specialist/trainer at the United Nations Secretariat, training diplomats and global UN staff. He also serves as faculty teaching business communication, linguistics, and public relations within the Division of Programs in Business at New York University's School of Professional Studies. Dan was the director of corporate communications at a leading NYC public relations firm, and his corporate clients have included TD Bank and Pfizer. He contributes to Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, HuffPost, Business.com, and Thrive Global, where he writes about the intersection of global business communication, intercultural communication, and professional development.

Raúl and Dan are the coauthors of How to Communicate Effectively with Anyone, Anywhere (Career Press, March 2021).
https://www.amazon.com/how-communicate-effectively-anyone-anywhere/dp/1632651793