The body language of online communication

When we participate in a meeting, our brain registers much more than just the spoken conversation. Next to verbal expressions, a good, often significant part of the communication happens in nonverbal manner. We have learnt to draw conclusions from the body language of our counterparts, their facial expression, posture, gestures or the signals sent through mere eye-contact. We decode a smile and flushing cheeks, the tone and volume of voice and plenty of other signals, through which we "read" others. In a meeting, everybody communicates, even without saying a single word.

Psychologist claim, that nonverbal communication makes up about two-thirds of all communication between two people or between one speaker and a group of listeners.

The nonverbal parts of the communication are essential contributors of our understanding. At a conscious or unconscious level, they help us to make judgements on other peoples attention, involvement, interest, engagement, sympathy, tension, uncertainty, ambivalence or frustration. And sometimes even on truth or lie. 

When it comes to online communication, we seem to lose most of the subtext transmitted trough this variety of nonverbal channels. Instead of our five senses, we are thrown back onto the perception of what´s visible on a screen: the text of an email, the status updates and notifications in a social network, the counts of a like button. Compared to the richness of a personal encounter, this looks like a rather poor form of communication. Nonetheless, in todays work environments, online communication represents a big portion, sometimes even the predominant mode of our interactions with others. But as human communication is infinitely multifaceted, I´m wondering about equivalents to nonverbal expression in our remote forms of communication. 

What is the body language of online communication? 

Technology provided us undreamed-off possibilities of communication in terms of reach and speed. At the same time, technology has not given much to maintain richness of expression beyond the levels of handwritten letters: next to the interpretation of written information, we might be able to draw conclusions from certain, more or less implicit online behavior, like

  • choice of communications channel
  • switching between communications channels
  • preference or avoidance of "real-time" communications channels
  • immediacy or delay of response
  • extensiveness of online expression
  • inclusion or exclusion of others to participate in the communicative exchange
  • amplification of expression through typography
  • symbolic content, like emoticons or "likes"
  • receptiveness for requests to connect or to "follow"
  • choice of online communications in avoidance of physical liaison
  • affirmation of content through forwarding, reposting or retweeting

The relative contribution of these indicators to the overall value of our online communications often remains in the dark.

Nonverbal messages interact with verbal messages in six ways: repeating, conflicting, complementing, substituting, regulating and accenting/moderating. As online communication proliferates further, more unambiguous nonverbal signals, ingrained in software functionality, might emerge as a welcome alternation or even as necessity.

Would this be a way to overcome technology-induced intermediation of human communication?
What´s your take?


Franz Jachim I've enjoyed reading your article and interpretation. These are valid points about online communication. If 2/3 of communication are non-verbal and that channel is inhibited through the digital medium then might communication be impaired?

Franz, I'm a software engineer and I'm currently working on a chat application. I'm trying to represent aspects of communication that other applications might have missed. The analysis and illumination of body-language in online communication is an interesting thought and you have some good ideas regarding this; Ideas where I might start, however it is this line that most intrigues me “As online communication proliferates further, more unambiguous nonverbal signals, ingrained in software functionality, might emerge as a welcome alternation or even as necessity.”

Hypothetically speaking, regarding that quote above, what kind of mechanisms might such an application include to make nonverbal signals less ambiguous? I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on the matter. Please get back to me some time, I've included my email address in the comment form.