How to respond to confusing digital communication

Cover.Digital Body Language

In 1921, the Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach invented the Rorschach take a look at, also called the inkblot take a look at. This psychological take a look at asks the topic to consider a sequence of inkblots and report what shapes or photos they see. Then the topic’s perceptions are assessed to decide their thought processes, preoccupations, and character. For instance, once you take a look at one of many inkblots, do you see the wings of a bat or a butterfly? Two palms cupped in prayer? The solutions say subsequent to nothing in regards to the inkblot, however they reveal so much about the way you operate emotionally.

At work, we come up in opposition to the equal of inkblots daily. Right here’s one within the type of an electronic mail:

From: Jane Robinson

To: Erica Dhawan


Why didn’t you end this? -Jane


At first look, it is a simple little bit of communication, most likely written in a rush. However what does Jane’s electronic mail actually imply? Is that this simply how she discovered to ship emails in enterprise faculty, or is there one thing else occurring, e.g., a digital energy play?

I’ll throw it again to you, Rorschach type, as we discover two frequent kinds of anxiety-provoking digital physique language.


  • Brevity
  • Passive-aggressiveness


An early expertise I had working at a big consulting agency taught me so much about how annoying quick, to-the-point communications could be. On the time, I believed I understood indicators and cues fairly properly, however I wasn’t pretty much as good as I believed.

Residing and dealing in New York, I used to be in nearly every day communication with a British senior associate primarily based in London. We’d by no means met in individual, relying solely on electronic mail and cellphone dialog. As a youthful affiliate, I used to be keen to show myself, and the London associate appeared captivated with working with me too. Sadly, 90 % of the time, I had no concept what he wished and even thought.

Digital Physique Language: How to Construct Belief & Connection No Matter The Distance by Erica Dhawan

Because the senior chief on the mission we have been engaged on, he naturally set the tone of our communication type. His emails have been as terse as haikus. Is Ship a short on this consumer any totally different than Fog rolls into shore. The clanging of the crimson buoy? Mirroring his brevity, I’d reply, Particulars please. Essentially the most cellphone time I may get with him was 7–10 minutes in between his consumer conferences and airport journey, and the suggestions I acquired throughout these snippets of dialog solely confused me extra. Work on this extra, he would say, and some days later, Let’s iterate, although the collaboration implicit in that phrase by no means occurred. And never as soon as did he inform me what wanted extra work, or iteration.

As time went on, I felt that it was unimaginable for me to succeed. Worse, he was sad with my work—I knew that—however with no steerage or suggestions longer than a number of electronic mail traces, I couldn’t deal with what was flawed.

I couldn’t do the work I felt I used to be able to since (a) I by no means received correct digital suggestions, and (b) the facility imbalance left me in no place to demand it. I used to be left with fixed project-related nervousness that solely ended after I left.

Brevity from the higher echelons of energy isn’t precisely unusual. At Morgan Stanley, there was a working joke that the extra senior you have been, the less characters you wanted to categorical your gratitude in a textual content or electronic mail. You began your profession with Thanks a lot! and after a promotion or two, this was lower down to Thanks. One other promotion produced Thx and even TX. One senior chief simply wrote T.

Senior leaders have a well-deserved status for sending sloppy texts and sloppier emails. Poor sentences, dangerous grammar, atrocious spelling—we don’t have time to care! Brevity can make an individual seem necessary, however it might probably additionally harm your small business. Getting a slapdash electronic mail implies that the recipient has to spend time deciphering what it means, which causes delays and doubtlessly leads to expensive errors.


Worker engagement professional Dr. Jaclyn Kostner has this to say to execs about sloppiness: “You have got to discover the time; in any other case, you’re not match for the job and someone else ought to be doing it. Or perhaps you want to offload some obligations, as a result of there’s no excuse for sending folks cryptic emails.” Leaders don’t have to respond to each message, however when necessary work steerage is required, their communications ought to not less than be clear. Think about how significantly better my first draft of the work would have been if my haiku-speaking boss would’ve taken ten further minutes to clarify his targets?


We’ve all felt it. That second after we’re referred to as upon to interpret phrases that could possibly be completely positive however tie our stomachs into knots anyway. What does she actually imply in her textual content when she sorts, Per my final electronic mail, or, Only a mild reminder . . .

She sounds as smart and mild as a Norse goddess—however is she really saying, “You didn’t learn what I wrote. Pay extra consideration, goddammit!” or, “Get this finished! It’s late! I’m ready!”?

Generally we understand coded language as a microaggression, one which fuels already dangerous emotions amongst co-workers. Different instances, we inform ourselves it’s most likely only a phrase our boss picked up in enterprise faculty and doesn’t understand how patronizing and stuffy it seems to be in print.

For higher or worse, digital communications don’t allow us to see one another’s quick reactions—which is why we search for methods to “politely” categorical irritation. The important thing phrase is “politely.” Whereas a few of these phrases could be construed as passive-aggressive, the reality is that busy folks typically use them as legit follow-up requests, no passive-aggressiveness implied.

Passive-aggressive emotions behind frequent phrases

What’s written: Per my final electronic mail.”
What’s meant: You didn’t actually learn what I wrote. Concentrate this time!”

What’s written:
For future reference”
What’s meant: Let me appropriate your blatant “mistake” that you just already knew was flawed.”

What’s written:
“Bumping this to the highest of your inbox.”
What’s meant: “
You’re my boss, that is the third time I’ve requested you. I want you to get this sh*t finished.”

What’s written: Simply to ensure we’re on the identical web page.”
What’s meant:
“I’m going to cowl my ass right here and ensure that everybody who refers to this electronic mail sooner or later is aware of that I used to be proper all alongside.”

What’s written:
Going ahead.”
What’s meant:
Don’t ever do this once more.”

So how ought to we body our personal simply following up on this with out participating in any passive-aggressiveness ourselves? When is it thought of okay to loop in our boss with out seeming like a jerk? When will we textual content a response quite than emailing it? When will we use the cellphone to name and make clear one thing?

When you’ve got a excessive degree of belief, go for the cellphone name, and don’t hesitate to respond rapidly and informally. When you’ve got much less belief or the next hole in energy ranges, be particular and well mannered in your responses and use formal channels.

From Digital Body Language by Erica Dhawan. Copyright © 2021 by the creator and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

Erica Dhawan speaker and management professional and speaker who has spoken earlier than Fortune 500 firms and the World Financial Discussion board. She has helped organizations and leaders innovate collectively, quick and much. Erica is the founder and CEO of Cotential, a consulting agency. She holds an MBA from MIT, together with an MPA from Harvard Kennedy Faculty.