How to assess people in online communications beyond the clothes they wear in their writing
You are interviewing candidates for a position. They turn up five minutes late, their hair is dishevelled, shirt stained. Rightly or wrongly, your immediate instinct is that this is not the candidate for you. But through the course of the interview, the points they present are incisive and considered, and their grasp of your business and its needs outstrip every other candidate you’ve seen that day. Who is this person? What aspect of what you’ve seen represents them the best? Which bits matter?
In person, we are more than used to making snap judgements based on the appearance of a person. We are also used to having these assumptions subverted to a certain degree. In person, we can navigate the territory of first impressions and the understanding that develops later, and figure out the ‘real measure of the man’.
Oddly though, even as the use of electronic communication and social media has risen, we have retained a strong bias towards assessing people in person; relationships – be they business, romantic or otherwise – are considered only to have been forged fully when they have been sealed with direct eye contact, helped with a handshake. Rene Siegel has recently written about the importance of meeting clients in person; quite rightly pointing out the value of relationship building through small talk and personal interaction, and the intangible cues we can pick up from body language and the environment that the person occupies.
The simple fact is though, meeting in person is not always going to be an option. We need to work to develop our ‘people reading’ skills in this not-so-new online environment. So, what key areas do we need to focus on to make sure that when we ‘meet’ new people in online interactions, we maximise the chance of gaining a genuine understanding of them as people and potential collaborators?
Listening to more than just words
Phone or skype conversations – even without video – provide an opportunity to gain insight into the character of a person by listening to more than what they say. When you listen carefully you can hear when somebody is smiling as they talk, whether they are distracted by a second task, whether they’ve had a bad day and are in a terrible mood. Learn to pick up on the non-formal, non-verbal cues that are embedded in the way people talk, in the musicality of their voice, and the way they laugh, pause and listen. How much do you instinctually warm to them as the conversation develops?
Getting down to business
Small talk is a well-established part of social interaction. We secure the comfort of our conversational partner by starting with topics that are accessible to both parties, and gaining a feeling for the threads that can be picked up and expanded upon, developed into more meaningful and productive discussions.
Online communication is often lauded for its ability to make communication more efficient; it is instantaneous, can traverse time zones, and allows us to share information in a variety of visual and verbal ways. But does this drive for efficiency mean there’s no room for small talk and relationship development by email? You can tell a lot from a correspondent who just dives right into the issue, who writes a long and formal introduction, who starts with a light-hearted personal anecdote, who rambles and covers fifteen different issues across the space of one huge block paragraph. The way people write often represents the way they think – are they on the same wavelength as you?
Attention to detail
Grammar and spelling are the clothes we wear in our writing. Dropped apostrophes, misusing their and there, lazy text speak (which, let’s face it, is very early noughties) – these all act as the equivalent of mustard on your shirt and a baseball cap on backwards in a meeting. The language doesn’t have to be perfect – it’s important to remember particularly that we work in an international environment where many people operate outside of their first language, and their efforts to engage with us in our own language are a privilege and mark of respect, so mistakes are more than forgivable. Good grammar can also be a mark of privilege and upbringing, and the value of a person does not rest exclusively on his/her ability to meet formal writing conventions.
None-the-less, recognising the way that people write, the extent to which they proofread and the attention they pay to details can all help to give an impression of how that person will pay attention to both the small details and the big pictures that matter in your business.
Getting the full picture
Many psychologists theorise that our sense of self is not a fixed construct. Who we are at home visiting our Mum is different to who we are down the pub with friends, which is different again to who we are in our business interactions. None of these are false selves, just different presentations that are built around a core set of beliefs and traits. In person, we have the chance to uncover these core personality elements as we interact with people in different settings, but in online business we are often limited to a single operational environment. We see only one side of a very complex entity. Think about changing the online ways and places that you interact with someone to find out more about who they are at their very core, with the formalities of the business environment stripped out.
We are all individuals – some of us extroverted, some of us grumpy, some of us artistic, some of us comedic – but we are also hugely affected by the cultural environment in which we are raised. If someone seems abrupt in an email, appears impolite, comes across as overfamiliar; these might be clues about a person’s attitude and personality, but it might also relate to the cultural conventions at play underneath. Trying to extract one element from the other requires a degree of sensitivity and emotional intelligence, but the more we expose ourselves to the wider world, the more opportunity we have to develop the tools needed to navigate this territory.
Putting it all together
The important thing is to view all of these aspects in context – assessing them in conjunction with one another to build up a rounded picture. One late reply does not give an automatic measure of a person, one email containing more than a few typos does not mean that the individual should be written of as lazy or lacking attention to detail. Instead, assessing a person through their online identity means building the pieces of a puzzle – and recognising that not all pieces will necessarily slot in neatly; human identity can occasionally be messy and inconsistent, but seemingly outlying behaviours or personality traits are ultimately what make us individual and unique.
Meeting in person is always going to constitute the ‘gold-standard’ in relationship development – we are after all naturally social beings. We react almost instinctually to the way in which a person talks – hands stuffed in pockets and awkward shuffle, or eye contact and an open stance that puts us at ease. What we need to develop is the online instinct and behavioural vocabulary to assess people in the virtual world, with the aim of building relationships marked by respect, trust and mutual understanding.