I recently had a discussion with someone about the challenges of picking up nonverbal cues in a virtual environment. In a world where much of our interaction occurs via camera instead of in-person, we may struggle to catch the nuances in conversations that are transmitted through environment and body language: dress, setting, gestures, posture, facial expressions, and the like. However, although “reading” people onscreen may be different than reading them in-person, it’s not impossible. Like anything unfamiliar, mastering the art of understanding virtual context cues takes developing a new skill set while becoming accustomed to the new situation.
Of course, developing new skills takes practice. Understanding nonverbal cues face-to-face is a skill most of us learned and understanding them virtually can be learned as well. Regular exposure to virtual nonverbals, such as through recurring Zoom business meetings or class sessions, helps. As colleagues and classmates get used to each other and get used to being on camera, they tend to forget about the camera and let their guards down. We’ve all heard stories of people neglecting to put on pants or attending to hygiene, unaware that others could see and hear them. Most on-screen behavior isn’t that dramatic. But you can still learn a lot about a person by observing them in the confines of their Brady Bunch square. (Zoom’s Gallery View is great for this.) Who dresses up for the occasion? Wears business casual? Casual casual? Pajamas? Who uses a virtual background? What’s the background image? (My favorite is Cloud City from The Empire Strikes Back.) What does the choice of image reveal about the person’s personality?
Did they forgo a virtual background in favor of their actual room? What does that say about them? What did they choose to show you? A poster? A bookshelf? Bookshelf backgrounds are popular. Is the selection of books visible over the speaker’s shoulder curated to create a particular impression? Did your colleague really read that four-inch thick classic of Russian literature or are they trying to make themselves look smart?
Dress code and background aren’t the only nonverbal clues offered by the virtual environment. Behavior reveals plenty, perhaps more than the person on-camera realizes. Who leans in close, so their face fills the frame? Who leans back in their chair? Who sits in a chair versus on a couch? Who fixes their gaze on the camera, even when they’re not speaking? Whose eyes wander? Who can’t seem to figure out where to look? Whose eyes are angled downward at a smart phone they think no one knows they’re using to check their social media feeds? Who’s playing with the Zoom filters? Who can’t make the cat face filter go away?
Cloud-based communication is not likely to go away. People have discovered the utility of the virtual environment. As much as people may miss hugging and sharing meals at the same table, we can’t deny the convenience and cost savings of doing things virtually. A subscription for a webinar service is less than rent on a lecture hall. Tuning in to a presentation from your kitchen, bedroom, or home office is cheaper than traveling to a conference and renting a hotel room. It’s also more convenient. Many of us have been able to attend events that we never would have been able to go to in-person, due to finances, scheduling, and distance. We’ve even been able to visit family and friends we couldn’t travel to see in-person because they lived across the country or on a different continent. Since virtual interaction is here to stay, we may as well master it. Mastery includes learning how to cue in on the nonverbal aspects. What people don’t say, on camera, just as in-person, often tells you more than what they do say.
Have you learned how to read a virtual room? What tips can you share for making it easier to catch non-verbal cues when you can’t be in the same physical space as the person you’re interacting with? Have you read any books or short stories, or seen any movies, that effectively used the virtual space to advance the narrative? (If you like horror films, I suggest Host, available on Netflix. Scariest Zoom meeting ever.) Join the discussion here on the blog or over on social media