For many people, 2020 was the first real experience of working from home. This wasn’t the occasional day here and there while you wait for the plumber to fix your heating or where you just can’t face dragging yourself into the office. Oh no, this was stuck at home all day, every day, balancing your laptop on an ironing board and trying not to scream as you drag yourself into your umpteenth Zoom call of the day. Without any warning, we were plunged into a chaotic and confusing world and we were completely unprepared.
But after finally getting the hang of working from an improvised desk consisting of an ironing board and a stack of books, and unexpectedly meeting various colleagues’ kids, pets, and flatmates, the rules are set to change again and it’s hard to know what to expect. As we get ready for a whole new world of hybrid work and whatever the metaverse eventually throws at us, one thing is for certain: it’s going to be interesting and a little cyberpsychology can help us prepare for it.
For some people, emojis, gifs, and text speak are the curse of the Internet and proof that people are getting dumberer and forgetting how to write properly. In a world where cat memes and TikTok dances are hot topics of conversation, it’s easy to fall into this trap. But research suggests that there is actually a positive relationship between “text speak” and literacy, with one study even correlating text speak with higher levels of linguistic and cognitive skill. So far from being a sign that the world is doomed, emojis and gifs might actually be your most valuable tool when negotiating hybrid and remote work.
When we communicate in real life, we use facial expressions, body movements, tone of voice, and lots of other non-verbal cues to get our message across. If you put a computer screen and a few hundred kilometres of cable between you and the person you’re talking to, all of those cues are stripped away and you’re left with just words. You have to hope that they are clear enough to be fully understood. More often than not, though, the basic message gets through but the nuances in meaning are lost. If someone doesn’t pick up on your subtle humorous or sarcastic clues, what was meant as a harmless remark can get you into a whole heap of trouble.
Filling in the blanks
But what if there was a way to get some of these cues back, to communicate more clearly, and avoid misunderstandings? Emojis, creative punctuation, unusual spellings, animated gifs, and videos are a form of paralinguistic communication that add layers of additional meaning to what we say and they can help us communicate more clearly. When you factor in that many people are communicating in a language which may not be their first, or even their second language, anything that aids communication can only be a good thing.
The idea that text speak and emojis are somehow responsible for decreasing levels of literacy just isn’t supported by the research. In fact, studies show that literacy isn’t just about how well we read and write, but how well we can use different media to communicate. Most research suggests that there is a positive relationship between “text speak” and literacy with one going so far as to correlate text speak with higher levels of linguistic and cognitive skill.
Don’t be scared
To put it in a nutshell, don’t be afraid to experiment with emojis and animated gifs, and don’t be afraid to use punctuation differently if it helps convey more meaning. Used in moderation, emojis, text speak and other creative media are a tremendous help when communicating electronically. When used to add a little humour in communications they can neutralise unwanted formality and even create a sense of group identity. The challenge is not to overdo it and make sure the context is right. Practice using them a little more but remember that emojis in formal correspondence is probably a bad idea, and writing an entire press release in emojis like Chevrolet did is even worse.
Never trust first impressions online
The way we form relationships online is different to how we do it in real life. Instead of slowly building up a holistic picture of a person over a series of face-to-face encounters, we get a limited and often carefully curated flow of information and our brains because they’re really good at handling incomplete information start filling in the blanks for us. With fewer cues to work with, we sometimes amplify or exaggerate our opinions of people and create idealized perceptions of them.
Often, the level of emotion we feel surpasses what happens in real life and it develops more quickly too. So we might perceive a person who regularly uses lots of smiley emojis as very friendly (or annoying), for example, while we might think someone who uses formal, precise language is stand-offish or brusque. This is known as hyperpersonal communication and it means, among other things, that we create our own impression of people, which may or may not be accurate or fair. To put it another way, if the only thing you know about a person is something positive, the more likely you are to regard them favourably. But if all of your online experiences of a person are negative, you’re more likely to think they’re a jerk or maybe even start hating them a little.
But in those cases where we do form positive opinions about people, some people become more emotionally open when online, and they disclose more personal information than they would in face-to-face settings. This can make relationships more meaningful and can even create closer bonds within the team.
Hyperpersonal and hybrid?
Where hyperpersonal communication gets really interesting, however, is in a hybrid work environment. Imagine joining a team and for the first few months you work purely online and never get to meet anyone in the office. During this time, you build up an idealized perception of your teammates and may think you know who they are. But what happens when everyone finally meets in the office and their real-life personas don’t quite match their online personas, or rather your perception of them? It can be a pleasant surprise when you realise that the grumpy guy on your team is actually really cheerful, friendly, and funny. But it can be really strange too when you find that your online “best friend” is awkward and shy when you have coffee together.
Ideally, we would all meet up in the office as soon as possible to avoid developing inaccurate perceptions, but if the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that things just don’t work out like they’re supposed to. All we can do is acknowledge that sometimes the person we talk to online is not the same person that comes into the office and that sometimes a person might seem hostile or rude online while in real life they can be one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Having plenty of patience, humour, and empathy is the only way to deal with the inevitable surprises that await.
The idea that our online personas don’t always reflect who we are in real life isn’t just due to hyperpersonal communication or general misunderstandings. Sometimes it’s intentional. Much like companies who carefully manage their corporate brand, many people use impression management to present a picture of who they are or who they want people to believe they are.
There are various reasons for this, but in a professional context it’s generally a way to make us seem more professional, interesting, successful, or to indicate membership of a particular group. Usually, this is well-intentioned and people are unlikely to be deliberately dishonest. Instead, they carefully select which information they disclose and this can be a good idea. For example, it’s probably not appropriate to share photos of you playing drinking games at a beach party on LinkedIn. Similarly, sharing an update about how much you enjoyed your compliance training on Instagram is unlikely to get you many invitations to parties. But nevertheless, it’s useful to be aware that people use impression management to manipulate how they are perceived and that we shouldn’t base our opinion of colleagues purely on how they seem online.
Online disinhibition is one of the most powerful aspects of online communication and it can be a force for both good and evil. In cyberspace, the feeling of invisibility or anonymity (even if that’s not actually true), combined with the impersonal nature of online communication where there are no visible reminders that we are communicating with a human, can lead to what’s known as empathy deficit. For some people, the words they type online are just words; they think they have no impact, no repercussions, and do not affect anyone. Sitting alone in a room typing on a computer it can be tempting to feel like the social constraints that govern our behaviour in real life no longer apply. As a result, we are more likely to say or do things which we would never do in face-to-face situations. This can cause problems in a hybrid work scenario.
Trolling and bullying on social media are perhaps the most obvious consequences of toxic online disinhibition. Online disinhibition is also the reason why you might not complain about bad service in a restaurant when the waiter asks if everything is OK, but you’ll launch an ALL CAPS assault on TripAdvisor when you get home. But there are positive consequences too: Many people can express themselves more authentically online than they can in real life. This allows people to express feelings or share information that they would be reluctant to do face-to-face for fear of rejection, ridicule, or criticism. Just look at the various support groups online and the increasing use of the internet to provide counselling and therapy for proof of this.
In the world of hybrid work, this means that if we can create an online environment based on trust and support, teams can unlock the full potential of their members, even the shy ones who might never normally speak up in conventional meetings or share their opinions. This can only work if there are strict rules in place to prevent the kind of toxic behaviours we’re all too familiar with from social media. Properly harnessed, online disinhibition levels the playing field and can create a better environment for collaboration.
Things you should remember
So how do we prepare for the world of hybrid work? It’s neither remote work nor regular work but combines the best and worst of each. Likewise, even if the metaverse just ends up being a weird mix of Fortnite and Microsoft Teams, it will still challenge us as communicators and digital citizens. To help cope with this scary new world, here are some psychological tips to help you make the most of it.
- Cultivate your online persona and be mindful of how you might be perceived because of what you say and how you say it.
- Adapt your communication style to the situation. Experiment with camera-on and camera-off meetings, find out who prefers email and who prefers chat, replace some meetings with group chats, etc.
- Remember that people are different online and may not behave the same way in real life.
- Don’t jump to conclusions about colleagues. It takes time and patience to really get to know someone online.
- Be patient, understanding and above all else, kind when getting to know colleagues. You don’t have to like everyone you meet, but you do have to be kind and respectful.