Reading social cues in a digital medium

We send out this newsletter every two weeks, exploring how organizations and individuals can better communicate with their audience. Read past issues.

Ever had that uncomfortable feeling when you were not sure how a text message you sent to someone was coming across? Or of not knowing whether someone is really listening on a phone call? Completely normal. Understandable too.

Reading the tone of a remote conversation can be hard, even if you’re used to having interactions with people over mediums like texts, social media, calls and emails.

As a whole, we’ve just begun to smooth out our rougher edges when it comes to communicating effectively online.

By effective, I mean:

  • The message and intent are easy to understand.
  • Intents of the communicating parties are compatible.

Aligning intents is where social cues come in. A successful conversation can come down to noticing these cues and what they represent.

In-person social cues

In-person is our default mode. The majority of people can pick up on these cues without much effort.

Prominent social cues in face-to-face conversations are:

  • Facial expressions
  • Body language
  • Phrasing
  • Tone

Where these cues are useful: Think door knocking campaigns or conversations with coworkers (to name a few non-personal scenarios).

Expectedly, it is easier for two people to get on the same page if they’re in the same room, talking to each other.

Any discussions that veer towards negative emotions, or a substantial ask, are best handled with an in-person conversation, or the next best option, a phone call.

Voice based communication cues

On phone calls, trouble comes from not having any visual cues to look out for.

Prominent social cues in phone calls are:

  • Phrasing
  • Tone of voice

Where these cues are useful: Phone banking, fundraising calls, etc.

Read this: The persuasive calling cookbook

Note: Body language still has a minor role here, since it can influence your tone on a call.

Cues in texting

The rules aren’t clear when it comes to texting (and emails), namely because you are limited to cues from the text itself.

Cues in text form are:

  • Phrasing
  • Punctuation
  • Emojis
  • Timing

Where these cues are useful: When having a text conversation with a contact, professional emails, etc.

Refer to:

Texting insincerely: The role of the period in text messaging

How long do you have to respond to a text message?

45 emojis and what they mean

As is true for an in-person interaction, shorter, terser phrasing may indicate an unwillingness to engage in further conversation.

Social awareness develops in childhood, but it doesn’t have to end there. For the next time you feel unsure, it’s never a bad idea to take a second to think before saying something (or take a minute before sending a text).

See you next time,