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A sideways glance in a video chat. An email that drifts off into ellipses. And why did your boss even add you to this calendar invite anyway?

What does it all mean?

We were once fluent in the nonverbal cues of the physical office. Slumped shoulders or a downcast look were enough to know when the boss was disappointed or a colleague stressed. A cryptic email often only necessitated rotating our chairs 180 degrees to get clarification from the sender.

Besides, we had all day to figure it out, gleaning little hints from the walk to refill our coffee cups or the minutes spent mingling before meetings. Now our work interactions are boiled down to 15-minute peeks into each others’ lives on Zoom calls, or a volley of emails with no additional context. Trying to read body language through a screen has become another exhausting part of the workday.

“We feel like we have one hand tied behind our back," says Traci Brown, a speaker and author on body language based in Boulder, Colo.

There are still plenty of ways to read nonverbal cues if you know where to look, Ms. Brown says. Start with people’s movements during video calls—a colleague crossing her arms could signal she’s closed off to an idea or has some information you’re not considering, she says. A quickening or slowing blink rate can signify stress. And pay attention to eyebrows. Eyebrows pointing down toward the middle of your nose indicate anger; eyebrows in a neutral position but curled up in the middle point to sadness, Ms. Brown says.

The approach isn’t foolproof. That colleague with the crossed arms could just be feeling cold. Consider body language your tip that you need to probe deeper to find out what’s really going on with someone.

Much of our analysis of others at work used to happen subconsciously, the result of years of evolution. Now we either must ignore our previously useful assumptions or we’re left confused and mistaken.

“The gestures we’ve been raised on our whole lives, they’re continuing, but they don’t command the same meaning they once did," says Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab and a communication professor at the school.

Take staring. Gazing directly into someone’s eyes for more than one to two seconds is interpreted as intimacy or a precursor to conflict, Dr. Bailenson says, triggering our fight-or-flight response. Now we lock eyes all day on Zoom. And our images on screen are generally bigger than typical personal space would afford in the office. The perceived closeness can make us uncomfortable, or convince us we’re held in higher regard by a meeting attendee than we actually are, he says.

Tony Caleca, managing partner at St. Louis accounting and consulting firm Brown Smith Wallace, was used to his colleague Steve pushing his shoulders forward and sliding up in his seat when he was ready to share during an in-person meeting. But on video the motion felt more dramatic.

“It was a little bit alarming at first," Mr. Caleca says. “It felt like he was coming at you." Mr. Caleca started reminding himself the image was just Steve getting ready to speak.

Valeria Klamm, a manager of practice growth at the same firm, has found herself freezing on video calls nearly daily due to a poor internet connection. When the frame includes a furrowed brow, colleagues can get the wrong message.

“We were worried that maybe she was offended by something we said," says Kelly Peery, a colleague who was recently on a call where everyone laughed at a shared joke, except for a silent, angry-looking Ms. Klamm. It was just another freeze.

“I should just have a sign that says, ‘It’s not you, it’s me,’ " says the 32-year-old Ms. Klamm. “I’m like, darn it, how long have I been frozen? I’m here. I’ve been engaged. How long has it looked like I haven’t been engaged?"

Written communication can be just as fraught. People are tripped up by everything from the brevity of emails—nothing chills like a reply that’s just a single question mark—to the timing.

Erica Dhawan, author of the forthcoming book “Digital Body Language" and CEO of Cotential, a New York-based consulting firm focused on collaboration, suggests puzzled clients ask for clarity if they have a close relationship with the sender, and just assume good intent if they don’t. Remember that punctuation marks like ellipses are often wielded differently by generation—older workers might mean nothing by them, while younger workers read them as sarcastic. Some might adore emojis, while others remain baffled by them.

Devising organizational norms can help. Ms. Dhawan had a health insurance company coin abbreviations that denoted how quickly the sender expected the recipient to reply. Including “4H" in a subject line signified the note necessitated a response within four hours.

If something vexing—say, a message that opens with a passive-aggressive “per my last email"—happens three times, it’s probably worth a candid conversation, Ms. Dhawan says. You could share examples of virtual interactions that were confusing or concerning. Or ask yourself whether switching mediums might swiftly fix the issue.

“A phone call is worth a thousand emails," she says.

Read the Digital Room

Avoid getting tripped up by digital body language, with tips from Stanford professor Jeremy Bailenson and author Erica Dhawan:

Add some space: Reduce the size of your Zoom window so meeting attendees don’t appear uncomfortably close.

Hide the self-view: Staring at yourself the whole meeting isn’t a good way to catch others’ cues.

Pay attention to changes: If your usually casual boss pivots to using more formal language, something might be up.

Don’t overreact: If someone sends you a confusing or slightly passive-aggressive email, assume good intent. If the communication doesn’t impact your ability to get the work done, it might be fine to just let it go. If something happens three times, it’s time for a candid chat.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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