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Importance of nonverbal communication in a virtual environment

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It has been over a year since organizations rushed from the traditional office to a virtual workplace due to the coronavirus. The transition from office to home leads to other changes: many of us now communicate much more often in the virtual world, rather than face-to-face, which means that nonverbal communications are now more important than ever.

How has this transition from personal to digital communication changed the way we read people and interpret their body language? In a world of virtual communications, nonverbal cues often speak louder than our words. Voice tone, eye contact and physical gestures increase our ability to connect with family, friends, clients and colleagues, to build or strengthen trust, and communicate more effectively.

Importance of nonverbal communications

There is no doubt that everyone has heard about the influence of nonverbal cues and body language in a conversation, whether it is in a business meeting or a chat with a friend. Nonverbal communication can be  extremely powerful and has been studied by many social scientists, philosophers and psychologists. Nonverbal communication is characterized as all non-lexical interactions, including hand gestures, posture, facial expressions, eye contact, voice intonation and tone and speaking style.

Although spoken languages from different cultures vary widely, nonverbal communication remains universal and understood all around the world. So, understanding not only the meaning of the spoken words, but also the overall presentation is vital in both your personal and professional life.

According to Edward G. Wertheim’s “The Importance of Effective Communication,” nonverbal hints can play five distinctive roles in communication, determined by how they are used:

  • Repetition: This can emphasize and provide  more impact on what you say. Gestures, such as nodding, help support what is being said.
  • Contradiction: This may counteract what you are trying to say. The detection of deception is usually based on nonverbal cues. Some people know how to detect lies because they can spot these discrepancies.
  • Substitution: This means replacing a spoken word with a nonverbal cue. Instead of saying something, your body language can say it for you.
  • Complementing: This can add a different quality to what you say and, essentially, can assist in conveying a verbal message. For example, a smile can accompany words of enthusiasm or praise.
  • Accenting: By accenting nonverbal communications, one can emphasize a verbal message. For example, crossing arms can underline a message.

These nonverbal communication signs form essential components of our relationships with others, both professionally and personally. And the more we interact, the better we become at noticing these cues.

It is true that when communicating digitally, visually a person’s behavior or facial expression is almost the same as when being face to face. However, there are clearly differences between live and virtual interactions, including a decrease in nonverbal behavior. Virtually, we have far fewer of these noticeable signs. But as we get used to communicating online, we will no doubt become more sophisticated about how we communicate and how we express gestures so as not to be misunderstood.

Improving nonverbal communications in a virtual environment

More often than not, the lack of social cues is a substantial challenge when it comes to virtual meetings. The sophisticated nonverbal actions that we subconsciously or consciously pay attention to when trying to figure out human reactions, make up 60% to 90% of our interactions with anyone and are quite difficult to identify in virtual meetings.

The use of nonverbal cues in conjunction with verbal content can confirm comprehension. These remote interactions can take longer to process, because of the additional effort required to ensure that everyone is in complete understanding. It is useful to ask questions and confirm understanding orally, as the absence of intervention can generate unwanted results.

Of course, some people might not enjoy sharing their video on a call, but it is important to remember that the ability to connect visually is one of the most noteworthy advantages of virtual meetings. Eye contact releases a social bonding chemical called oxytocin in our brain, resulting in a closer connection with other callers. This helps people feel noticed, signaling that they are important and not ignored, and that increases serotonin levels.

So obviously only sharing a video is not enough, we need to make active eye contact. Balance looking at the faces of others while looking at the camera lens, so that others can see your eyes. This is against intuitive human behavior and can take some time to get used to, as looking at the camera usually requires looking away from the faces of the meeting participants.

Furthermore, when you see yourself on the screen, it should not be noticeable whether you are sitting or standing. Maintaining a proper posture is a key part of forming a more sophisticated presence in a virtual environment. This may seem like an insignificant detail, but poor posture can have long-term negative effects on the first impression of a person. Also, always avoid sitting with arms crossed, as in a conversation it is important to show that you are invested in the interaction.

Mastering the skill of slowing down a conversation and creating pauses between individual points can be a powerful communication trait. The power of a pause cannot be overemphasized, especially in virtual communication. A pause can also be a way to accentuate a point in the conversation. In addition, delaying a few seconds before continuing to speak will also give others time to ponder on those ideas before proceeding. The same principles apply when a person is a listener.


Communication has definitely changed with face-to-face meetings, interviews and negotiations being transferred to the virtual environment. With this significant and sudden change, the lack of non-verbal language is clearly evident. A wide variety of nonverbal cues will allow you to present a range of communication skills. In addition, providing nonverbal signs of understanding will increase the success  of the virtual communication. If you are able to be more insightful and adapt to what someone is saying with their body language, it will help you to have more sincere and worthwhile conversation.

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