Changes In Body Language In The Post Pandemic World
The COVID-19 pandemic posed a challenge to the entire world of how to continue functioning even when all of us were physically cut off from each other. In that sense, the pandemic presented the world with one giant social experiment, and function we did! Most of the businesses adapted their models, operations and interactions to tweak it for a remote and technology savvy work environment. How did this change the way we communicate with and understand each other? How many changes have taken place in our nonverbal communication? Which of these were temporary and how many are here to stay?
Changes in our body language
During the peak days of the pandemic, with social distancing becoming the new normal, we might have become a bit more deliberate about expressing ourselves, we might be more “loud” non-verbally. For example, a tight hug could, in normal circumstances, tell our friend we were super thrilled to see them, if now we are following strict social distancing, we might choose to show this same excitement with greater expression in our body language or else let them know the same with more excitement in our voice. Similarly, if our mask is on and we wanted to acknowledge our neighbor passing by, the polite smile would not be visible so we might raise our eyebrows, or nod back at them or else raise our hand to greet. The same goes for how we express ourselves while explaining concepts in a meeting room – the body language is louder since the people are farther away from us than usual.
Changes in how we understand others
When the pandemic was at its peak, our body’s tendency to keep freezing or showing resistance to other people was much more than usual – a heightened fight or flight reaction. And I believe we all became a little better at being able to pick up the subtler cues of others around us because suddenly we could not rely only on the facial expressions of others so we started noticing other body changes as well. And this was because we were deliberately looking – will this person be comfortable with me being close to them or not, will this person mind if I take my mask off or not and so on. Whether we will continue to stay just as observant once things are back to normal, some of us might, but for habits to form, the society would need longer time to practice this skill of deliberately observing others.
Missed cues for online meetings
When the video call frame is not set right, (e.g. torso not visible, too much light in the background etc) a lot of the expressions of our counterpart are missed out. Our team has always emphasized that one needs to look beyond the faces to be able to decipher people. Now more people are requiring this training to be able to decipher the body language of their counterparts beyond facial expressions during video calls. With training, it is possible to do this. Also, in order to express oneself, we often use hand gestures along with facial expressions and vocal intonation. People need to learn to tweak their hand gestures to make them more visible online since often these get hidden. When vocal intonation is less and hand gestures are not visible, long conversations often sound monotonous, boring and strenuous.
It is a common myth that we can see only the top half of a person during online meetings. The bottom half is visible through the posture taken on, the movements of the upper half of the body and the orientation of the person. If these are noticed properly, it is as good as being able to observe the entire body language. So along with observing a person’s facial expressions, hand gestures and vocal intonation, the above are a few things you need to see.
Tricks to come across as more engaging and confident
- Avoid leaning too much to the front, this can make you hunch with your shoulders hiding your neck thereby making you look less confident,
- Try and go for a chair with armrests so that you can spread your hands on the arms when not using them to communicate. This helps to take on a wider frame and hence look more confident.
- Make sure your torso and not just your face is visible so you can use more space to express yourself better. Also the more clearly your body is visible, the easier it is to gain the trust of others.
Biggest body language mistake online
I will not state the obvious – which is about how to be more expressive using the upper part of your body for online meetings. But here is my input – If you turn off your video and expect the other person to keep theirs on and you are looking to decipher their body language, this is a strict no-no. Besides the fact that this is bad etiquette, what we need to remember is that reactions that we see of people are two-way communication. So if you expect your counterpart to look more enthusiastic, maybe how you are responding to their dialogues is not visible to them since your video is off. And so on. So if you think too much video conferencing is tiring you out and you are chairing or organizing the meeting, do make sure to voice it out loud and clear to everyone at the beginning so they can choose to turn their video off as well.
Personal online “aha” moment
For rapport building, we recommend teams to try and do the same thing together. Having tea together in the office seems casual and natural but in an online setting, this can quickly turn awkward because we would all be seated exactly face to face instead of side to side which is the more natural way of social interactions for groups. So for our team we tried something different at a time when we were running out of ideas for online team bonding – our entire team logged in just to clean our laptop screens together. This might sound simple but when we were doing this activity without being intrusive, suddenly we felt a rush of rapport that we were all missing out on ever since we were in lockdown.
Gestures to be more engaging during masked meetings
Best thing to do is to just use transparent masks or face shields so that deliberate tactics do not need to be implemented and you can be your normal self. When we try to incorporate deliberate changes in our body language, these are noticeable by the counterpart and it can become a distraction. If the transparent mask is not an option, you might need to be more expressive e.g. speaking slower and louder so that what you say is not muffled up, hand gestures might be greater since your audience is farther away from you, upper part of the face might be more expressive since lower half is not visible, deliberate use of walking around the stage might be required for longer presentations etc.
Some do’s and dont’s
Don’t try anything new before practicing well at home. When one is making deliberate tweaks, unless they come naturally to your body language, these tweaks would look out of place, unnatural on you or come up incoherently with your speech, thereby distracting your audience and can even make them not be able to fully trust you.
Cues are we missing out on because of face masks
The lower part of our face does show dislike a lot faster than the upper half. So when people are not happy, it is a bit difficult to decipher unless they go for the face shields or the transparent masks. I have seen the use of both of these at places which require customers to see reactions of people serving them (e.g some of the high end restaurants in Mumbai) and this is quite a relief. I would recommend most people in client facing roles to exercise this use of transparent masks or shields
THE OFFICE CULTURE
Shift in the corporate culture’s nonverbal communication
People are being cautious in terms of hygiene but overall for physical meet-ups, the attitude of staying away from one another both physically and socially has seen a shift from stark avoidance during the first wave to mostly back to normal right before the third wave. Greetings by touch are back in a lot of places although people do exercise caution of checking subtle hints of each other on what can be convenient and acceptable by the other party instead of just taking it for granted that people are ok with stepping close and physical handshakes. The other touch based encouragement in the workplace might be missing – tap on shoulder, pat on the back, sharing food from the same tiffins etc. These activities somewhere helped people to bond better. Now teams need more efforts to rekindle the lost spark because they stayed away from one another for a reasonable duration.
Corporates themselves are requiring deliberate efforts to make up for the lost coffee break conversations in the new hybrid version. Team players have changed and again deliberate efforts to bond teams are being taken up which at one time used to happen quite naturally between people sitting right next to one another. It is more difficult to identify each individual’s natural styles of conversation, communication and personality because not everyone is operating out of the same station anymore. A few teams had this set up before, now most teams have this combination.
Adaptations that we are doing are going to be temporary as far as physical meet-ups go. As for the fact that a lot of our interactions will permanently be online henceforth, we need to learn tweaks to make ourselves more interesting when we are stationed in one place and cannot use the stage for longer presentations. We also need to learn ways to involve the audience, make them feel comfortable since video calls can be highly intrusive especially when people from different hierarchies are participating together.
Nonverbal communication has been a part of our lives for millions of years. So if we are thinking of how our nonverbal communication has changed / will stay changed in the post pandemic world, it is too short a timeline in the entire span of evolution to matter greatly. Permanent changes in our instinctive reactions are generally very very gradual over time.