Recently on one of my daily, unmasked senior walks through Cambridge (Harvard flavor), I came upon a masked mother and a quite young unmasked child in the park. When the youngster spotted me, she ran toward me just beaming and waving. I couldn’t help but give her a big smile in return. The mother’s smile was barely visible behind the poorly fitting mask but it was there. That moment of joy I still treasure. I see almost no smiles anymore. I miss them so much.

Smiles say so much. Often, words are not necessary.

You have probably heard about the 7-38-55 “rule” in communications that claims 55% of communication is facial, 38% is tone of voice, and just 7% is the verbal content. This means that 93% is non-verbal.

Despite its evidently numerous detractors, this strikes me as roughly true in many situations. Especially today when facial expressions are missing, you really notice how much more difficult it is to communicate effectively mask-to-mask. This seems even more the case when something complex is being communicated.

Body language and gestures are also part of communications. These were not part of the studies done to develop the 7-38-55 rule so we have to conclude that the non-verbal portion is well below 93%. How much below? I have read guesstimates in the range of 50 to 60 percent, which may be about right.

Why does this matter?

It matters a great deal to communications professionals and teachers who must take into account all of the elements. These include body movement, hand position, eye contact and several other cues given by the speaker that can either confuse or solidify the message. Nonverbal communication can express feelings and attitudes that may not match what is being said, which may be an important part of the message.

For the rest of us amateur communicators, the story here is that facial expressions are extremely important in communications generally. This is part of the power of Zoom kinds of communications that are so prevalent today. We really do need to see faces to get the full message.

But there is more to this story. In the words of a teacher:

“Over my decades of teaching, I’ve learned to read a room pretty well: the harmonized posture, the breaths, the laughter, the eye gaze. My classes are successful when everyone is so excited that they want to speak over each other out of sheer exuberance. When people sit up straight and say, “Wait! Do you mean …?” because they have a brand-new way to understand the world — that’s the superpower of anthropology. When students huddling around a text point to it, their gazes converging, and create a document they’re proud of. When people laugh simultaneously. When the affect and the cognition and the interaction work together.”

This is not what my Zoom classrooms are like.

There is constant need to repair, to apologize. People are constantly talking at the same time and interrupting someone else’s signal. I am constantly switching views from one screen to another, to scan the faces (at least those who haven’t chosen to post a blank screen, permitting rest, multitasking or even absence). I am watching the eyes, listening for completion, listening for that intake of breath that indicates readiness to talk. I am continually repressing my lifelong, trained habit of uttering simultaneous encouragement through “continuers,” those back-channel cues that encourage the speaker to go on. Mmm-hmm, yeah, I know. None of that works; the platform is made for a single speaker at a time. It’s the folk model of how conversation works, but not what we actually find in practice.

Business is communications-based

Presently, mask use in business is quite common, although far from universal. This means that communications is missing around half of its essential content. Emails and screens can’t replace face-to-face interactions. The mask itself can be a visual communication barrier.

Many speakers have distinct accents that do not easily come through without the full array of communications elements. One researcher notes that “…The inability to decode facial expressions and the absence of lip reading has challenged my ageing hearing. Without these visual prompts, I am often unsure if someone is talking to me and have to ask them to repeat themselves. This is draining for all parties and may discourage some from discussing important issues.”.

Charles Darwin in 1872 wrote “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” that provided a solid scientific foundation for the importance and variety of facial expressions in communications. Social interactions are enhanced, misunderstandings are reduced, and group functioning is more effective when the full range of communication facilities is available.

In business, this missing element can lead to errors and misunderstandings. Some of these are almost certain to be serious.

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin

Written communications are becoming more important

Preventing communication errors and misunderstandings is placing increasing importance of written communication follow-up. It is hard enough just trying to remember accurately what was said in times without the absence of facial expressions but today, with 50% of the natural communication machinery often unavailable, written follow up can be vital.

Emails are the most common way to confirm a verbal communication. This has led to an almost unmanageable volume of hard-to-organize emails and to the development of message-based communication applications such as Microsoft Teams and Slack. These appear likely to become even more important for some extended period, and perhaps even permanently.

Business Insider late in 2019 reported that Teams and Slack daily users have passed 25 million, while The Verge in March 2020 reported that Teams usage alone jumped to 44 million active daily users. This is no doubt due to the sudden shift to remote working but the business processes in which Teams and others are becoming embedded may well outlast the driving situation.

Emails, Teams, and Slack don’t smile

Written communications are very helpful in making much content understandable and specific. This has always been the case but it is limited to what can be stated in written words. Where context and emotional factors are important, email simply can’t do the job. Email, despite emoticons, doesn’t smile.

Is it even possible in practice to replace non-verbal content in business communications with email or its close cousins?

If the non-verbal content is a vital part of the message, then its absence may detract greatly from the communication effectiveness. Perhaps we will learn to make our emails more conversational although their asynchronous nature makes this hard to do. All caps probably won’t work in most cases. Boldface, same. Emoticons seem even worse if that is possible.

One possibility that I just ran across is the use of transparent face shields. While these are not always as clear and transparent as air, they may help greatly in bringing back facial expressions – even smiles – to business communications.

Remember when business was conducted over non-visual phones?

Important business communications have been handled for over a century through telephones. Typically, major points are confirmed in writing. No visual communication and no mask involved. Are masks just a step back in time?

Think about multi-party negotiations. Visual cues can be as important, or maybe even more important, than what is being said. Again, these have been conducted for many decades via conference calls. No visual cues so we are probably more attentive to more complex verbal content such as tone, hesitation, aggressiveness, and stumbles. Lots of message content in these if you are listening carefully.

Is a smile necessary?

Maybe nice and reassuring but hardly essential in most situations. “Smile-talk” can be managed using other content. Words and how they are said can convey a “smile” intent if you know how to distinguish this. Some Middle Eastern societies have managed to communicate for centuries with almost complete face covering (women). Facial expression seems helpful but not necessary.

We just have to learn some new tricks for communicating.

But I’ll still miss the smiles.

Bottom line:

The vanishing smile is yet another example of how changes that we mostly cannot control are affecting so many aspects of business life. These are now simply facts that we must find ways of dealing with, of adapting. It is largely pointless to focus on the causes or to assess blame. We can manage around almost anything if we turn our attention fully to constructive ways of communicating successfully in this strange new world.

Anu Gupta, writing in e27, talks about how business communications generally are being impacted by the New Normal: “The new communications playbook for the new normal”.

“COVID-19 has hit us all hard and caught us off guard – bringing us into what we now call the “new normal”. With the increased mobility restrictions and their impact on businesses worldwide, rules of communications have changed overnight. While life has been upended by the pandemic, we all have had to figure out solutions to cope with the dynamic situation. The virtual world has become our ‘new world’. This stands true for communications as well, be it internal and external. As new platforms are increasingly adopted, brands have been compelled to rethink their communication strategies, both internal and external, so as to continue reaching out to their target audiences including employees, investors, and consumers, etc., effectively.”

Brian Eagar, writing in bizcommunity, offers a concise picture of how to communicate effectively in the New Normal: “Effective communication paramount in the new normal”:

“It is acknowledged and irrefutable that good, solid organisational communication eliminates barriers and helps to resolve problems timeously. It improves the culture and helps to build stronger workplace relationships which lead to increased performance and productivity. In fact, what you say, how you say it and when you say it is your culture.”

“Although information overload and remote collaboration have been on the rise for some time, no-one could have predicted how this would accelerate in recent months. It is now even more important to communicate effectively, especially on a digital medium. So, how do we adjust the old rules to thrive in the new normal?”

ICPLAN, a software and consulting provider, offers a fairly extensive set of guidelines on communications in the New Normal: “Post-Crisis Internal Communications: Moving Towards the New and Different Normal”:

“Post-crisis internal communications are going to take on a whole new layer of importance as countries and the businesses continue their move out of the hard lockdowns of the past weeks and months. If before it was relegated to mere internal newsletters and in-office posters, post lockdown internal communications will have a much bigger part to play. Ironically, it took a global pandemic to drive home just how much we depend on internal communications to keep things moving smoothly. Here are things you need to watch out for.”

Jiselle Webster, writing for IdealCommunications868, has some very simple guidelines on communications: “YOU ARE TOO CLOSE – THE NEW NORMAL AND ITS IMPACT ON INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION”:

“2020 has been a year of learning new things and adapting to new changes. One of the new changes is the ‘New normal’ with ‘Physical or Social Distancing’, with the sudden dawn of the Covid-19 virus. Today, we must adapt to wearing a mask, maintaining distances, not greeting persons as we use to, washing hands among other new practices. This has restricted the way we communicate with others and has both positive and negative impact on our interpersonal relationships. Today’s Blog Sundays topic, we examine thirteen (13) areas or practices within Interpersonal Communications, where the New Normal has been highly impacted.”