electronic body language

Before Hitting the Send Key


What you Need to Know about Cross-Cultural Emailing

Cultural understanding can make or break any team, but especially an international one. Cultural misunderstandings can drive irreparable wedges in relationships. Not only is it important in avoiding potentially expensive and embarrassing blunders but it is also important in building cohesive teams.

When reading the emails of people from different cultures, we do not have the luxury of being able to read their body language as we do face-to-face; therefore the precise meaning of their words is extremely important. This difficulty is amplified when the emailer is from a culture different from your own. Understanding the cultural context of their words is essential to your overall understanding of intent.

How Email Varies from Country to Country

First, be aware that people differ—that we don‘t all have the same perspectives, nor the same assumptions about actions and behaviors. What is polite and assumed in one country isn’t necessarily so in another. For example, Americans generally shoot off many emails quickly and casually, and are generally straight to the point; however, in much of Africa and South America,  it would be considered rude not to add a personal touch and to get down to business right away. Additionally, in countries like Germany, there are clearly delineated formal rules for business emails.

Language Pitfalls

It is paramount to be mindful of potentially confusing idioms, jargon, or too much slang. For Americans, this might mean avoiding phrases like “bite the bullet,” which might be taken too literally by nonnative speakers.

Confusion can occur even between native English speakers from different countries. For example, in the U.K., “To table the discussion” in the parliamentary sense is to lay a topic on the speaker’s table for discussion, while in the U.S. “to table the discussion” means to postpone it until later.

Many countries — but not all — love to use sports references in business–everything will be a “homerun.” People from countries where sports analogies are not the norm may wonder why they have to run home or devine no meaning from a “sticky wicket” reference — it is all but meaningless to those unfamiliar with the sport of cricket.

Generally, to avoid language misunderstanding, make what you think is implicit explicit. Double-check your wording for idiomatic phrases that may not be universally understood.  Don’t assume that your reader understands your metaphors or analogies.

Differences in Culture

Of course language is just a manifestation of the differences in cultures. There are High and Low Context cultures. In High Context cultures, messages have very little meaning without an understanding of the surrounding context. France is very high context culture–you need to understand the culture in order to understand the intent. While a non-French speaker may think they are being friendly by putting “merci” at the end of their email, to a French speaker it is a passive aggressive “thank you–now go forth and do my bidding.”

On the other hand, in Low Context cultures the meaning lies mostly in the message itself. In many English speaking countries, for example, as well as countries like Germany, Norway, or Sweden there is less need to read between the lines, as from a young age they are taught to say what they mean and communicate directly. However, a “yes” in a high-context culture like Japan does not imply a firm commitment but generally means “Yes, I understand.”

If email is the only point of contact you have with someone, and they commit a cultural faux pas, it can be harder to overlook and overcome when all that is seen is the email address and not the person behind that address.

It’s important to know what is appropriate to say and do given a person’s position within the company. Integral to this understanding is Power Distance–which anthropologist Geert Hofstede defines as the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally. In a Large Power Distance country, the distance between bosses and their subordinates is liable to be more significant, and must be especially observed.  For example, in many Asian cultures, subordinates are more deferential to their bosses and authority, so be careful not to address bosses in a too familiar manner.  On the other hand, in low distance countries like the Netherlands and the U.K., bosses are seen as more approachable “equals” and language may feel somewhat disrespectful or mutinous, if you are in a leadership position receiving communications, as it may be far less deferential than you may be accustomed to.

When emailing to Large Power Distance countries, bosses may need to give permission to subordinates, so they should not be contacted directly. At the very least, the supervisor should be CC’d in the email.

While acknowledging differences in manners and values be careful not to overgeneralize. These are people too, working within their own cultural context of assumptions and predispositions, just we as you are. Not all Americans eat fast food in the slowlane of the highway (credit: the late George Carlin). Be careful not to attribute one action of one person to an entire country.

To mitigate problems of traversing different cultures, be as overt as possible with your intentions. Assume benevolence and don’t assume that actions you find hostile to be ill-intended. Whenever possible ask for clarification! This is a trust building opportunity!

Once you learn how other cultures interact, you’ll see how stereotypes about “rudeness” and other misunderstandings just melt away.

Readers: Please share any experiences you have had with emailing or communicating with people from cultures other than your own! Thank you!

7 Top TED Talks

7 Top TED Talks to Inspire & Move You

TED talk


As a student of life, leadership, and motivation, TED talks have become a routine part of my week.  Whether I need to be inspired, motivated, or need a fresh point of view to spur reflective thought, there is certain to be an amazing TED Talk to fill my need.

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, and is “devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less).”  TED is driven by their goal of spreading great ideas.

Lately, I’ve been taking an in-depth look at leadership, and want to share with you the TED talks that have moved me the most.

Here are just five talks that every one should watch.

Have a TED talk that you love that isn’t here?  Please share in your comments.


1.  Dan Pink:  The Puzzle of Motivation

If you are a leader looking to increase productivity, then watching this TED talk  might change the way you do it.

Career Analysi Dan Pink examines the puzzle of motivation, starting with a fact that social scientists know but most managers don’t: Traditional rewards aren’t always as effective as we think. Listen for illuminating stories — and maybe, a way forward.


2.  Why we have too few women leaders

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg looks at why a smaller percentage of women than men reach the top of their professions — and offers 3 powerful pieces of advice to women aiming for the C-suite.



3.  Meg Jay:  Why 30 is Not the New 20

“I believe that every single 20-something deserves to know what psychologists, sociologists, neurologists, fertility specialists already know — that claiming your 20s is one of the simplest yet most transformative things you can do for work, for love, for your happiness, maybe even for the world.  This is not my opinion.  These are the facts.”

A TED talk not to miss!


4.  Simon Sinek: How Great Leaders Inspire Action

We care a lot about leadership.  Simon Sinke provides a simple but powerful model for leadership and how leaders can use it to inspire cooperation, trust, and change.


5.  Amy Cuddy:  Your Body Langauge Shapes Who You Are

As an organization, Bridging Distance has a lot of research invested in understanding how to develop your own Electronic Body Language in order for others to correctly interpret you in absence of direct body langauge.

In this amazing TED talk, Amy Cuddy reveals how we are influced by our own body language and how we can each make tiny tweaks in our body posture to increase our own confidence while decreasing our own stress levels.  This information — these tweaks — will greatly improve your chances of success in evaluative situations such as job interview, difficult conversations, or presentations.


6.  The Power of Vulnerability

Brené Brown studies human connection — our ability to empathize, belong, love. In a poignant, funny talk, she shares a deep insight from her research, one that sent her on a personal quest to know herself as well as to understand humanity. A talk to share.



7.  Nilofer Merchant: Got a Meeting? Take a Walk

Here it is — support for our “hiking” meetings which have become standard for many of us here at Bridging Distance.  Nilofer’s concept is simple, but profound — “Sittinghas become teh smoking of our generation,” and getting out in the fresh air helps to drive fresh thinking.  This short video is well worth your time.


Question for Readers:  Which of these TED talks has made a difference to you?  Are there any TED talks that have meaning for you that you’d like to share here?


Electronic Body Language — Beyond Etiquette!


When most of us hear the term “Electronic Body Language”, we think about being polite, clear, and concise in our electronic communications so that each message is received as intended. We think about email etiquette.

While this certainly matters, the bigger picture is the underlying assumptions that people make about YOU based on your virtual behaviors.  As technology replaces many face-to-face interactions, the ability to accurately interpret virtual behaviors is quickly becoming an essential workplace skill.  And yet, we tend to interact with others through virtual communications without much awareness (or concern) of the impressions we are making.

Our Electronic Body Language is our virtual presence – the judgements about competence and credibility we make about others, and vise versa, based on virtual habits.

The opportunities for misinterpretation transcend email etiquette. Consider the following:

  • What assumptions do we make about someone who doesn’t reply to an email, or who doesn’t capitalize or spell check?
  • What does it say about someone who shouts into a speaker-phone during a teleconference meeting (or who can’t seem to figure out how to “mute” and “unmute” properly?)
  • What happens to our confidence in a leader who can’t facilitate a virtual meeting well?
  • Does knowing highly personal information posted on social media sites about a colleague impact how you work together or your expectations about what that person can accomplish?

There are two distinct viewpoints to consider when setting out to align your true professional self and your projected virtual self.

  1. You must understand your audience and the associated distances between you and them with regards to geography, generation, culture, and job position.
  2. You must develop excellent virtual work skills and habits to avoid behaviors that impede the projection of your true self.

For example, if you are leading an offshore engineering team based in India, you must understand the different power structure in order to effectively communicate critical information like project scheduling.  Culturally, in India, people are highly deferential to authority and are unlikely to challenge your schedule, even if they see problems with it.  Knowing how to effectively communicate virtually with this team will be critical to the success of your project.  You may be aware of this distance in a theoretical manner, but you must also learn how to apply it in your day-to-day virtual communications.

When you lead a team that meets virtually and you are constantly scrambling for call-in information, or are constantly sending incorrect information because your team is spread out over time zones, then you are presenting yourself as disorganized (at best), or lacking commitment or competency (at worst).  On a more subtle level, if you do not know how to interpret and manage silence in a virtual meeting, your meeting is not going to be a productive as it should be and, again, you are going to project an image that is not flattering.

You are the right person for the task at hand, and the best candidate for the leadership role you aspire to (or have).  When you develop and maintain solid virtual behaviors then your Electronic Body Language will accurately reflect how amazing you are, and will be an asset to your overall career development.

Consider your own Electronic Body Language.  What is something you have noticed or changed that could help someone else?


Summertime for Telecommuters!

Summer.  Popsicles.  Beaches.  Kids.

School’s out. Kids are home, are you, too?

If you are one of over 3.1 million telecommuters in the United States, you have been anticipating summertime with a mixture of excitement and dread (okay, this is true of all parents, but people who work from home tend have particular concerns).

It’s a huge relief to get a break from the morning routine of rousing sleepy kids and tossing them out the door.  But now they are home all day, making demands on you, because — after all — you’re right there (and what could you possibly be doing that is more important than looking for holes in the slip n’ slide?)

So how do you do it?  How do you meet the demands of work and the demands of your kids, not to mention your own summertime interests?

Involve your kids in the solution. Find out what’s most important to them this summer and let them know that you are willing to make it happen (assuming their requests are reasonable).

Manage Expectations.  Explain that they can only get what they want when your space is respected and you can get your work done first.  If this means that every day until 2:00 you cannot be interrupted for anything less than profuse bleeding, then make that clear to them.

Set them up for Success. If you expect them to prepare and clean up their own snacks, drinks, and lunches, then be sure that they know where everything is and that they can reach it all with ease.  This might mean setting out a box of goldfish crackers with a scoop so they know how much to take; or putting drinks into easy-to-handle pitchers for younger children.

Tell them How to Contact You. My kids text me when I’m working.  Yes, we are in the same, relatively small house, but it is a non-intrusive way for them to get my attention without breaking my concentration.  Maybe you prefer that they knock on your office door and wait for you to respond.  Maybe you want them to silently watch you work until you feel their beady eyes on you.  Whatever works best for you — explain it to them and only respond when they meet your expectations.

Know their Natural Schedules. If you, like me, have teens and pre-teens, they like to sleep in.  This is a blessing to my work, as I can get a full day in before they crack an eyelid.  If your children are young enough to have a nap / quiet time, this might be a great opportunity for you to schedule a call.

Keep Your Word. Honor your commitment to your family.  If you said you were only working until 2:00, then step away from your computer at the appointed time. When you are with your children, turn off your smartphone, stop checking email, be present — fully present — for them.

Merging summertime fun into your telecommuting schedule can be challenging.  It is worth the effort.  When the sun hits the beach and you’re there to enjoy it, you know you will never go back to commuting and rigid schedules again.

Don’t forget the ice-cream.

What’s your favorite summertime telecommuting experience?

Professional Development

Most everyone would agree that continuing to learn and grow is important for all people in all organizations, regardless of industry.

Thankfully, many organizations — large and small — not only agree, but set aside time for employees to attend available training opportunities.

Such an opportunity exists for people in our area as Professional Management Inc, Mass Bay Chapter, New England’s #1 advocate for project management leadership, is holding its fifth Professional Development Day tomorrow and Saturday, April 26 and 27.

The focus of this year’s professional development is:

The Changing Landscape of Project Management.

This year’s keynote speaker is Ernie Baker — It’s All about ME! — Explore your role as “Expectation Manager” by learning a new approach to getting commitment, and developing accountability for project deliverables.

This session will talk about the problems with managing expectations and review the project management tools that you have at your disposal that make this job easier. We will also cover some techniques and recommendations for applying these tools. Samples of project management motivational posters will be used to illustrate some of these concepts.

In the leadership track, our own Stefanie Heiter is presenting, Electronic Body Language — the ability to accurately interpret behaviors using technological communications is becoming an essential skill for those working in virtual teams.  The opportunities for misinterpretation are immense; the consequences can spell disaster for a project.

Participants in this session will highlight different individual interpretations and assumptions; review types of distance in the virtual arena; and gain strategies for maintaining their (true) beneficial electronic persona.

The mission of the PMI Mass Bay Chapter is to promote the principles and practices of Project Management within the Greater Boston Area.  We are excited to be part of fulfilling this goal.  Here’s the complete agenda.

Follow us on Twitter as we explore and tweet during this exciting conference:

Bridging Distance
Stefanie Heiter
Mary Lou Jurgens
Heidi Jakoby

Do What You Say. Say What You Mean.

When you work with others primarily through email (or text or IM), instead of eye to eye, saying ‘no’ becomes easier.  Saying ‘yes’ becomes easier, too.  Tapping out excuses on your keyboard is exponentially easier than making the same excuse in person (right?!)

Most people aren’t even aware of the promises they are making and breaking countless times each day.

So, Stop!

Right now.

Make the decision to be more thoughtful in your electronic communications.

Pause before saying no.

Pause before saying yes — don’t commit to something unless you are certain you can follow through.

Do what you say you’re going to do.  Every single time.

Let others know as quickly as you can to renegotiate deadlines when you can’t.

Whether you notice how easily you make and break promises or not, it is guaranteed that others do.  Your reputation is being shaped and refined each time, and reputation is everything to continued success when working from home.

Keep your promises (even the ones you make to yourself).

Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow.  The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing. — Abraham Lincoln

Does more email mean you are MORE important?

“Were you copied on Steve’s email?”

“Did you see what she wrote?”

“I have over 100 emails just from this morning!”

These are the informal conversations that take place in the central locations — the true power hubs of any organization — where the corporate culture is defined and reinforced.

We’ve worked with many companies for the specific purpose of reducing email volume only to discover that their corporate culture, subliminally, uses email as an indicator of a person’s value.  The more email you have and generate, the more valuable you are viewed within the organization.

We worked with one leader and her team to reduce the overall email volume between her, her team, and external team contacts.  As her team learned exactly what her expectations were regarding email, she was copied on fewer messages.  Without so much email to wade through, she got more work done and responded quicker to her team’s needs.  She contacted her boss and other external contacts to establish similar expectations.  Most people responded positively, and thanked her for her consideration.

Come performance review time, her boss criticized her for not communicating enough with her team and with external contacts, despite the fact that she and her team reached, and often, exceeded, goals.  Somehow, the conversation regarding email expectations had been forgotten and she received a poor performance review.

Ultimately, her review was redone after she shared the positive feedback from her team and from external contacts regarding her communication process.

It takes one team at a time to change a corporate culture.  Given the tools and opportunity, people will choose to create an environment they can thrive in by giving one another permission to change their email habits.

As you go through your work week, consider how you view email.  Is a lot of email a badge of honor, of importance?  Do you view others as more or less important, based partially, on how many times their name pops up in your inbox?  What conversations about email “load” do you hear around the proverbial water cooler and what do these conversations mean to your corporate culture?  Do you really want less email?

"Replyallcalpyse" or "The Day NYU Broke"

It was bound to happen.

Every single one of us has accidentally sent an email somewhere, for whatever reason, and suffered through the unintended consequences.  But likely none of us quite so spectacularly as NYU sophomore Max Wiseltier.

Poor Max thought he was forwarding an email to his mom asking for help on a new paperless tax form request from the university’s bursar’s office.

What he, in fact, did, was click “reply all” and PRESTO, BAM-O, his message hit the inbox of every single one of his fellow students — all 39,979 of them!  Yikes!

As realization dawned, Max fired off a quick apology, but it was too late.  His errant message “triggered a rare, University-wide revelation,” wrote Kelly Weill in NYU Local.  “We simultaneously realized that any message, complaint, whim, link, video, or GIF could be sent to nearly 40,000 people in an instant.”

And the messages flew:

“Does anyone have a pencil I can borrow?” asked one.

“I want us all to be happy,” said another.

“Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses, or 1 horse-sized duck?” posed yet another.

That was just the beginning.  Many students took the opportunity to send out Nicolas Cage photos (in both regular and crazy).

Weill continues, “We had been given a great and terrible power.  For a moment we contemplated responsibility, then gleefully tossed it aside in favor of posting pictures of cats.”

The culprit, ultimately, was a poorly managed listserv.  Apologies were made, lists updated, all ended well.

As you go about your daily email today, take a little extra caution around that “reply all” button.  You never know what havoc you may wreak.

Share your funny / tragic “reply all” story!

Newsflash: Sarcasm hard to Communicate Electronically

There’s a study for everything. Psychologist Justin Kruger, PhD, and Nicolas Epley, PhD, of the University of Chicago have published their results (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 89, Nov. 5) that illustrate how sarcasm isn’t easily communicated electronically.   Is there any wonder in this result?  Without that eye-roll, verbal emphasis, pause, or wink, sarcastic remarks often fall short of their intended mark.

Krurger and Epley find that people overestimate both their ability to effectively communicate their intended tone in an email message and their ability to correctly interpret the tone of messages written by others (whether funny, sarcastic, or serious).

Why?  The disconnect has been attributed to egocentrism — when people have a difficult time detaching themselves from their own perspectives and understanding how others will interpret them.

But this isn’t about you.  Right?  You get it.  Others could use the help, but you – you’re funny, clever, and your co-workers and friends “get” your snark.

Unfortunately, not at often as you think.

In the initial part of the study, participants sent messages via voice recording and email.  The speakers and writers each anticipated a 78% success rate in effectively communicating their designated messages.  The participants recording their messages were close — 75% of their messages were received as expected.  But only 56% of the email messages were correctly received. That’s little better than half!!

Wait!  It gets better — the receivers of said messages anticipated a 90% accuracy rate.

Wow.  That’s a lot of unmerited confidence on both sides.

Inspired by previous research by psychologist Elizabeth Newton, PhD., Kruger developed additional experiments to delve deeper into the social phenomenon of egocentrism and hypothesized that the sender assumed that the receiver had the same understanding of intentions, motivations, and information.

In 1990, Newton tested the ability to tap out the rhythm of a well-known song and predict listeners’ ability to guess the song.  Tappers predicted a 50% success rate.  Success rate was actually 2.5%.

Reason being, according to Kruger, is that tappers “hear” the full, complete, song in their minds as they tap, but listeners hear only the random tapping.

“It’s impossible not to hear the song as you’re tapping away,” says Kruger. “So you have a hard time separating yourself from your own perspective and realizing how impoverished the listeners’ data really are.”

Comparatively, email writers “hear” their intended tone while forgetting that recipients don’t have access to all that extra information.

Kruger and Epley repeated their first experiments, but this time the email writers were required to read their messages aloud before sending.  Half of the writers read their messages with the intended tone, the other half assumed an opposing tone —  sarcastic tone for a serious message, or a serious tone for a sarcastic one.  Epley explains that the point was to force participants to step outside of their own perspective and to negate some of the egocentric impact.

It worked.  Participants who read their messages as intended still over-estimated the recipients’ ability to accurately interpret the message, but those that read their message in an opposing tone no longer did.

How can this help you?

Anyone who has ever been asked if they really meant something they said in an email that they thought was clearly funny or sarcastic, can attest to the unintended consequences of misunderstood tone.

When composing an email that contains emotional content, read it out loud.  Read it in various tones of voice.  Remind yourself that there is roughly a 50% chance of being misunderstood.  Ask yourself if this is a message better delivered over the phone or in person.

Do you have a great story about unintended consequences of an email that you or someone you know sent?  We’d love to hear it.

What is your "Electronic Body Language" saying about You?

For years, office combat was waged in the open: man-to-man, woman-to-woman, woman-to-man. A boss’s crossed arms, raised hand, head nod, or arched back spoke to us in an unwritten language. Body mechanics that immediately relayed whether we were going to praised or buried.

But the rules of engagement are changing. More often, our main contact with peers and colleagues occurs through virtual communication channels — by email, telephone, chat, or text messages. The cause-and-effect of these changes has been a gradual realization among senior management that the footprints left behind in “electronic body language” are significantly deeper and more impressive than originally realized.

At its core, an office that relies on virtual communications poses an overall but false assumption — that we all share the same email standards of etiquette. But still waters run deep, and the currents that flow below today’s email-based communication have an undertow that can test important management assumptions and skills.

Routine “email body language” decisions we make every day — response time, length of e-mail, spelling and grammar, tone (whether perceived or intended), initial greeting, fonts, send time, participation on teleconference meetings — have significant (and often conflicting) effects in the office, especially on productivity.

Traditionally, work relationships developed in a meeting environment. Visual cues helped fill gaps between words and intended meaning. But in the virtual arena, communications often take on added importance, and subliminal messages and inferences about competence as well as clues about style preferences, gender, even nationality, convey differently from person to person. In they end, they often fall prey to significant cross-interpretation.

Understanding and appreciating the office’s attitudes around the use of technology is an important first step to deflect misunderstandings. For some managers, staff members who receive a significant number of emails or are frequently interrupted in meetings are unconsciously seen as important “go-to” colleagues.

In other situations, employees who are constantly available and quick to respond to emails are viewed as highly productive. In these office settings, high performance is inadvertently based on communication habits, not necessarily standard metrics. Yet few companies are explicitly aligning these habits with desired outcomes. A supervisor, for example, who asks to be “cc’d” on all emails potentially conveys conflicting messages to his staff relative to work flow and trust.

When used properly, electronic body language can motivate people to work effectively, instill creativity, and to inspire confidence. The key is adopting policies that are universally understood and which genuinely reflect the company culture. Often this means developing explicit rules of engagement for interactions and communications, understanding the unintended consequences of email or a meeting invite, and making sure that the right information gets to the right people at the right time.

By identifying what we find acceptable, rude, professional, and effective, good managers can improve team interaction and can manage the diverse standards applied inconsistently across individuals, functions, organizations, geographies, and cultures. Electronic body language will expose the unintended consequences of information overload and pose a visible and real deterrent to organizational fatigue.