Before 2020, working from home was a rare perk for most people. But now, remote work has become the norm for two out of three American workers.
Zoom, Skype, Slack, and Microsoft Teams have become vital tools for communication, replacing in person meetings and happy hours. The new way of doing things has resulted in the cringeworthy interruptions, misinterpretations, and … “YOU’RE MUTED.”
David Matsumoto, a social psychologist, has studied human emotions, facial cues, microexpressions, and body language for decades. He says there’s a lot we miss when we’re communicating at a distance.
“There is a lot of subtle, nuanced communication that is going to be lost when we go remote,” Matsumoto tells Inverse. “The more remote you go, the more lost it becomes.”
But there’s good news for our web conferencing future: If you have patience when taking turns talking, speak clearly, utilize video when needed, and create space to confirm incoming messages, you can avoid miscommunication.
I’m Ali Pattillo and this is Strategy, a series packed with actionable tips to help you make the most out of your life, career, and finances.
Lost in virtual translation — Human beings are wired for face-to-face interaction, says Matsumoto, who is director of the Culture and Emotion research lab at San Francisco State University and director of Humintell, a company that trains people to better interpret nonverbal communication.
We crave face time and evolved to pick up on both verbal and nonverbal cues from others, often without conscious thought. Unfortunately, remote communication tools — however helpful — aren’t foolproof.
“It's inevitable that we're bound to miss something in our communication that can lead to ambiguities at best and misunderstandings or conflict at worse,” Matsumoto says.
When both verbal and nonverbal messages are clear and consistent with each other (i.e. you smile while sharing good news”), communicating virtually is easier.
The problem lies in that much of human communication — a joke, a subtle elbow touch, a sarcastic eye roll — is more nuanced. Verbal and nonverbal signals often contradict each other.
“When you're not face-to-face, you can lose vocal quality and the ability to see facial expressions because you're 2D and not 3D,” Matsumoto says. There can also be visual resolution issues and the camera frame can obscure people's full body gestures.
These technical adjustments can create big problems. When people’s messages conflict, researchers estimate humans on the receiving end pick up 65 to 95 percent of the intended message from these nonverbal cues, Matsumoto says.
Without crucial nonverbal cues, how can people communicate clearly?
Matsumoto’s 4 guiding strategies for remote communication:
- For complex communication, use video. Communication tools exist on a spectrum. Video calling is likely to be the clearest, then phone calls, then emails and instant messaging. If you are trying to resolve a conflict or deliver tough news, it’s better to do it via video call, Matsumoto says — even if you’re struggling with Zoom fatigue.
- Slow down, and take turns. In normal everyday discourse, there's a certain amount of timing that occurs between people in their turn talking, Matsumoto says. All that is “thrown off” with remote communication because of audio and video time lags. “So you have to have patience about turn-taking, and maybe be more proactive in taking turns by raising your hand, especially in group meetings of more than three people.”
- Speak up and speak clearly (but don't yell). In remote communication, speech becomes more important to fill information gaps. “I think it behooves all of us to speak a little more clearly and enunciate what we're saying, and maybe even with a little bit more clarity and intensity in the voice so that things are coming off crystal clear,” Matsumoto says.
- Confirm you're picking up what they are putting down. Because we’re more likely to lose messages virtually, we can compensate with verbal strategies to avoid misunderstandings and minimize conflict. Matsumoto suggests having some space to confirm understanding as you go along in an interaction. That means repeating someone’s message back to them to confirm their sentiment and then moving on.
Ultimately, even if remote communication dominates our interactions for months or even years, Matsumoto says that doesn’t mean face time will end for good.
“The power of human nature to communicate the way we have communicated for the last several hundred thousand years is going to be back — once we can do that again,” he says. “We are wired to want to talk to each other, especially important others, in person and using our full senses.”