The awkward pause on a Zoom call. The brusque, ambiguous email. The context-free meeting invite. When online interactions are so easily misconstrued, effective communication is essential. As the author of the new book Digital Body Language, Erica Dhawan, MBA ’12, trains corporate leaders to connect fluently in this new era of remote work, with clients ranging from the US Army to Pepsi to Deloitte.
Her mission is deeply personal, rooted in her memories of being a timid elementary schooler in Pittsburgh.
“My parents were Indian immigrants, which meant that we spoke Hindi at home. When I got to school, I was the quietest kid in the class,” she remembers. “One of the strengths I developed because I was so shy was an ability to observe and decipher body language. I would watch the popular girls with their head tilted to the side, the cool kids slouching during school assemblies. I really tried to assimilate to the world of American body language.”
Fast-forward 30 years, and she’s using that hard-won intuition to decode a digital-first world where visual and written cues matter more than ever. In addition to her writing, she delivers keynotes to Fortune 500 companies—for the past five years, at a rate of 40 to 70 talks per year.
“We’re all immigrants to the world of digital body language,” she says. “I’m committed to building a movement of knowledge and training for what I believe are the skills of the new post-pandemic era.”
Those skills hinge on what she calls connectional intelligence. The concept, which prioritizes deep, quality interactions, contrasts sharply with typical measures of virtual success: number of Twitter followers, LinkedIn connections, or Zoom meetings per day.
“We’re living in a digital communications crisis, where the reaction is to connect more instead of connecting intelligently,” she says. People with connectional intelligence understand which meetings should be calls, and when to look directly at the camera during a Zoom to signal attention: “They know to never confuse brevity with clarity, that reading carefully is the new listening, and writing clearly is the new empathy.”
New ways of working prompted by the pandemic, she believes, could allow workplaces to become “more geographically inclusive, less visually biased toward traditional body language, and more creative about engaging anyone, anywhere, to be part of a solution.”
Dhawan has two children and enjoys Bollywood dance in her spare time. Dancing, she says with a laugh, “taught me that when we’re connecting with others, everything is a performance.”