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Digital Body Language: Three Tips for Writing and How to Adapt

By Jody Bruner

April 3, 2024

Writing Skills

Digital Body Language: Three Tips for Writing and How to Adapt - instant-messaging-speech-bubbles
Digital Body Language: Three Tips for Writing and How to Adapt - wave-lime-green-1260x540-1
Digital Body Language: Three Tips for Writing and How to Adapt - wave-lime-green-1260x540-1

We’ve known for a while now that digital natives, who are born after 1980 and the onset of the Digital Age, prefer texting to a phone call, even when a call or meeting is easier. They text to ask for a call or to say an email was sent, and they respond to a call with text or email. Don’t bother leaving a voicemail, because they ignore those. And they’re famous for using shorthand like LOL.

Digital adapters, generally born before 1980, prefer phone calls or a face-to-face meeting to email or text. They often take their time answering texts, and use formal language and punctuation, including signing off a text as if it were a letter or email. They also tend to send curt text messages that lack context and seem alarming to natives.

I recently read Erica Dhawan’s Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance and learned that while the best way to reach your adult children is by text, there’s more: HOW you text them is also important. Here are some pointers:

  • Use more exclamation marks, especially in your text messages, IMs and emails.
  • Emojis are good. 😊 Use them to add nuance to your tone.
  • Beware of periods in short text messages.

Use more exclamation marks!!!

The exclamation mark doesn’t belong in formal writing, but it does have a place in text messages and emails.

In Digital Body Language, Erica Dhawan writes:

The return of the exclamation mark is one of the most epic comebacks in punctuation history—and a cautionary tale for those who don’t keep up with the times.

In the past, exclamation marks were considered too much in business writing. They can feel fake and goofy, like laughing at your own joke.

As a digital adaptor myself, I used to limit myself to one exclamation point per email, because I believed that the right words and tone alone could convey friendliness, excitement, and approachability. I still believe in conveying a positive tone with words. But digital natives have taught us to compensate for the lack of emotional signals and cues in digital communication by being a lot less formal. So, “Sorry for missing the conference call” becomes, “I’m so so soooo SORRY!!!!”

As the style of writing swings toward informality, always use your judgment when writing on the job. Don’t start randomly sprinkling your emails with exclamation marks! Consider your organization’s culture and who you’re writing to—their personality and your relationship with them. The best practice is to mirror the other person, especially if they’re a client or are senior to you in the organization.

Today, exclamation marks signal friendliness. “They have become so obligatory in emails that you risk coming off as brusque or cold if you fail to use them.” They make us extra loud or extra nice. They add energy to your message and demonstrate your sincerity.

The next time you find yourself writing “OK” in response to someone in a text message, consider adding an exclamation mark. “OK!” Or, “OK, great!” shows your enthusiastic agreement and builds camaraderie.

Emojis are good 😊

They provide texture and context to messages. In the real world, emojis substitute for your face or gestures. Use them to clarify your tone.

Can you use emojis in email? Yes! Microsoft just added the option of responding to a message with an emoji. You can send a thumbs up to show your approval or a heart to show appreciation.

Like exclamation marks, emojis are useful tools for adding emotion to flat mediums. Know your audience and use them with judgement!

The period—use with caution.

Did you know the period at the end of a short text message today signifies cold, cruel fury to digital natives? Think angry face.

Consider this example:

Can you walk my dog tonight?

  • – Sure! (Shows enthusiasm.)
  • – Sure. (Brief text messages that end with a period are considered insincere or angry.)
  • – Sure… (This is seen as passive aggressive.)

Going forward, I can commit to never again writing a text message that says “OK.” Instead, I’ll replace the period with an exclamation point: “OK!”

Even though things have changed and we are even more informal than ever, always be mindful of your audience and use your judgement before you start peppering your emails with emojis and exclamation marks. Remember to mirror the other person, especially if they have more power than you.

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