Video conferencing is here to stay, which means it’s more important than ever to learn how to conduct ourselves through the medium – but many of us seem committed to sticking to our old, bad video habits.
For example, raise your hand if you’ve realized 20 minutes into a video conference that your laptop camera is looking up your nose? And, keep those hands raised if you make eye contact with images of our counterparts instead of our webcams? Moreover, apart from reading and answering emails and texts (which is rude) we tend to not invest in good lighting, decent quality microphones or even in tidying up what’s in the background.
But while it might seem the video conference/distance work environment is more relaxed, human behavior isn’t. Behavioral science suggests the people we’re interacting with still evaluate us and make subconscious, snap judgments – oh joy.
What can we do to improve?
According to an article published on Forbes.com, because our video calls cannot replicate the full, person-to-person experience—which gives the context and shows our full body language—people judge us using less data – and that data might include the poor connectivity, sound or video quality of the call.
Fortunately, apart from investing in cameras, mics and a good cleaning service, there are a few science-based body language habits that can potentially turn the tables in our favor. Here are five of them:
1) Give enough space in the camera to see more than just your face—body movements matter more than facial expressions.
Contrary to popular wisdom, facial expressions are far less useful in interpreting a person’s emotional state than body language. So, when you’re undertaking a video conference, remember that your excitement, happiness, disdain, concern, etc., is not fully reflected in your smile or frown, nor in your intonation. Scientists found subjects almost never correctly identified emotions by facial expression alone, except by chance. By contrast, they almost always correctly identified emotions by body language. The moral of the story is if you want to convey (or read) emotion over video conference, give yourself enough space so others can at least see your shoulders and arms. Also ask them to do the same. This is enough “body” to subconsciously convey emotion. Of course, by the similar token, if strong emotion is not what you want to convey, keep the camera close—very close!
2) Good posture makes you more assertive and confident.
Again, there’s a natural tendency to think videoconferencing is more casual. As such, you might be tempted to slouch or conduct your meeting relaxed. Resist that temptation. Correct posture gives you more “truthful” reflection about your thoughts and more clarity in interpreting them. Hence, if you feel positively about something—good posture will make you more confident and positive about it. By contrast, if you feel negative about something, good posture will make you feel more negative. The point is that a habit of good posture will help you remain more resolute in your positions with less fogginess, which is clearly a desirable trait of anyone hoping to command respect.
3) If interviewing, remember the “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” basics of interview body language.
Recognize that we have roughly seven seconds to make a first impression. Remember this acronym, “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”. Head: Eyes forward (in the camera), without staring – and don’t wink. Smile and nod every once and a while, just to show you understand but don’t look around. Shoulders: Sit up straight (see the point above) but never lift your arms above your shoulders when expressing something. Lean slightly towards the camera when emphasizing a point—which means your starting point (following point 1) must be far enough away to make the distance change obvious. Knees and Toes: Men, keep your feet flat on the floor. Women (if face-to-face) cross your ankles underneath your chair. Believe it or not, people can read how you’re sitting, even by video!
4) Don’t overdo it on mirroring the other guy.
Many body language pundits profess you should mirror your counterpart. However, behavioral scientists from UC San Diego tell us this is a risky and complicated thing to do—especially on video. Your main goal is to read the context and the emotions of the other and sometimes mirroring can irritate or show you’re insincere. Thus, if you’re on a one-on-one call, and you see the speaker is caught up in what he or she wants to say, mirroring can give them confidence and reassurance you understand and that you’re on the same page. That’s a good thing. However, when there are multiple people on the call, others might catch you mirroring the lead speaker and interpret this negatively. The same could happen if the interviewer is contemplative and clearly probing for your reactions. Moreover, in experiments, the researchers found that mirroring people with poisonous, narcissistic (negatively perceived) personalities by their colleagues could be disastrous, as others witnessing your mirroring will view you with contempt. At the same time, mirroring positively perceived people—in the eyes of others—might not even help you. Hence, the safe habit to cultivate here would be to sit relatively still and maintain good posture (and eye contact), especially while on a multi-person call. If the social cues suggest, smile and nod, but don’t get fancy.
5) Avoid video and face-to-face if you fear manipulation in negotiation.
Suppose your video call is intended to involve negotiations of some sort. While it seems only fitting to discuss things in person—and harmless, if necessary, to discuss them over video—you might want to avoid this if you fear you’re a bad negotiator. Why? Scientists at the University of British Columbia have found that people skilled at manipulating negotiations are far less successful when they must correspond in writing, versus video or in-person. Thus, written negotiations (say, over email) are far more favorable for you if you fear you can be manipulated. For example, suppose you’re shy or a bit introverted and you realize you’re scheduled salary and benefits negotiation call is with a savvy HR person who clearly knows exactly what to say. Try your best to get all the essentials in written correspondence first, or decline accepting anything until you’ve considered them offline.
It’s natural to take a casual attitude towards video conferencing because even the best cameras can’t pick up our wrinkled shirts or our socks on the floor. However, the truth is that this medium places much more pressure on the message we convey—and our bodies are actually one of our most powerful means of communication. For that reason, we should do what we can to put our best foot forward!