In the past few months, you may have felt weird about be-lining across the street when someone was walking your way. You might have felt self-conscious about how you look on video conference, or wished you could hug your friends and family — whether they live down the street or across the globe.
Valerie Manusov, PhD, is an expert in the study of nonverbal communication, a discipline that encompasses all communication that works alongside language, including facial expressions and body movement. She recently put the strangeness of these new-normal nonverbal behaviors into words as part of the UW Communication Leadership COVID Consultancy’s event series, Communication and Connection in the time of COVID.
“The rules of communication are changing,” says Dr. Manusov, a professor in UW’s Communication department. “A few months ago, it might have been perceived as rude if you moved to the other side of the road when you saw someone coming. Now that is more likely to be interpreted as a sign that you care.”
During this event, she shared key insights on nonverbal communication in the time of COVID and some ideas and practices for navigating this complicated moment.
Understanding nonverbal cues in the time of COVID
In the past months, the number of in-person interactions has dwindled, and the ones we do have are very different. Dr. Manusov shared the example of when she was recently on a walk and saw a friend she hadn’t seen in months pulling into a driveway. Normally, they would have embraced when they stopped to chat, but they both knew they had to keep their distance.
“I felt my [nonverbal cues] were telling her ‘you don’t matter as much to me’ or ‘I’m angry at you,” Dr. Manusov says, because that is what keeping your distance often implies. “We both knew that’s not what it meant [now], but that’s how much behaviors have changed.”
She also broke down some of the ways that having work, school and social events online changes the nonverbal communication dynamics.
“We’re all wondering if we need to get dressed [up] and put on makeup and what our background should be,” she says.
She also talked through the additional challenges video conferencing poses for listeners and speakers: While not muting the audience often leads to poor sound quality and audio feedback, not having cues from the audience makes it difficult for speakers to know if listeners are engaged. Lags in technology can also make it hard to know who is speaking and when or how people are responding to your words.
“We also see ourselves which is different from face-to-face communication and draws our attention away from others,” Dr. Manusov says.
Navigating and embracing nonverbal communication during COVID-19
So how do you navigate these strange new dynamics? Dr. Manusov shared the following insights:
Be compassionate with yourself and others
Life is really different now, even if it’s starting to feel normal — and that affects everyone differently.
“Try not overreact to other people,” she says. “Instead, be compassionate and think about what they might be experiencing. And if you wake up and are not feeling good, be compassionate with yourself. These are difficult times. It’s okay to have a bad day.”
This may be one of the few times in our lives when we have long stretches at home, with little to do.
“These are scary times, but there’s value when we don’t interact,” she says. “There’s time for self-learning and introspection….Think of how you want to use this time and how you can take advantage of it.”
Practicing mindfulness, bringing your focus to the present moment and acknowledging your thoughts and feelings, can also help you persevere through the pandemic.
Voice your interpretations and reactions
We lose a lot when we can’t communicate in person. To overcome this, Dr. Manusov simply recommends acknowledging it. She used the example of perceiving someone’s facial expressions as mad during a conversation — and says it’s okay to acknowledge that that’s how you’re interpreting their expressions. This means saying “I’m interpreting your reaction as mad or confused. Are you?” instead of saying “Why are you angry at me?” or just reacting as if they are.
“They may actually be mad at you, but more likely they’re distracted or something else is bothering them,” she says. “It’s okay to be vulnerable and acknowledge those issues.”
Think about what you value and what you miss
Dr. Manusov also recommends reflecting on all of the changes that have come during this time and thinking about what you miss and what you don’t miss. You may love not having to commute to work, but miss going to restaurants with your friends. Taking stock of that can help you appreciate things you took for granted and seek opportunities for change in the future.
“There’s a lot of change right now, both things we like and things we don’t want to come back,” she says. “It’s important to take time to think about that.”
This event was part of the UW Communication and Connection During COVID Speaker series, put on by UW Communication Leadership’s COVID Consultancy, which is offering pro-bono communications consulting to small businesses, nonprofits and UW departments during COVID-19. Learn more about the consultancy and sign up for future events.
Written by Megan Herndon
Megan leads content creation, editing and strategy for UW Communication Leadership’s COVID Communication Consultancy. She also consults with clients about storytelling and content marketing. She’s a part-time student in the Master of Communication in Digital Media program and works as an editor for Message Lab, a healthcare communication and content marketing agency. She is passionate about storytelling and all things outdoors.