Make online messaging personal by embracing the nonverbal

Main illustration: Kelsey Wroten

At Intercom we want to enable businesses to communicate with their customers in a personal and meaningful way. One of the ways we do this is to look at how people like to communicate and try to understand the elements that make it personal.

With the mass adoption of smartphones, we have seen dramatic changes in how people communicate with text. Whenever new communication formats become popular, such as GIFS, emoji and now animoji, they are frequently dismissed as trends or fads, and their use is often considered informal or inappropriate in a business environment.

But if you want to communicate effectively with your customers, it’s worth trying to understand why these new modes of communication develop and catch on so fast.

In face-to-face communication, non-verbal cues such as tone of voice and physical gestures play a crucial part in communicating emotion, and help manage the relationship between messages and meaning, which contributes to making interactions feel personal and human.

In the field of linguistics, these nonverbal cues are known as paralanguage, which can occupy 60-90% of human communication. Paralanguage is how something is said rather than what is said, and can include tone of voice, facial expression, hand gestures, body language and eye movements. Understanding how to leverage paralanguage, therefore, is important to enable better and more personal customer communication.

We have long adapted textual communication with substitutions.

One of the challenges with communicating clearly and effectively online is the limit on non-verbal cues, which are often unavailable in a text-based medium. For this reason, there is an assumption that without these cues, online communication is less rich than face-to-face and prone to misinterpretation.

Adapting text for nonverbal cues

However, we have long adapted textual communication with substitutions for these nonverbal cues. This comes in the form of textual paralinguistic cues, which help readers receive the message with the intended meaning, emphasis and emotional strength.

Textual paralinguistic cues come in many forms. We don’t consider it too innovative now, but non-standard punctuation and text formatting that mimics the tone of voice and phonetic spelling are often used to convey different types of nonverbal information.

The addition of different multiple punctuations can change the meaning of the message we send from enthusiasm to sarcasm:


We can also use spelling to convey elements of the human voice. Letter repetition and phonetic spelling can mimic the sound of spoken language:

Sooooooo good!
Oooooh wow

We can also mimic tone of voice by formatting the visual presentation of the text itself:

WHAT! (using all caps to indicate shouting)
That’s highly unlikely (using italics to indicate tone of emphasis)

In a sense, these forms of expressive text are a precursor to emojis.

Emojis: adding emotion and clarifying meaning

In everyday face-to-face communication we use body language and facial expression to help us to express complex emotions such as humor, sarcasm or even offense. In text-based communication, emojis can act as substitutes for our body language and facial expressions, and can be used to convey emotion and clarify a message’s meaning. Even non-facial emojis such as objects can help keep miscommunication to a minimum by conveying context and environmental information that can be difficult to deduce when not communicating face to face.

How do people develop a sense of trust when communicating online?

We’re big fans of emojis at Intercom, and use them liberally in our internal communication and with our customers. Emojis do a great job by themselves at conveying emotion (? ? ☹️ ? ), but when paired with text they can modify the message’s tone. For example, the addition of a face emoji to a message can change its meaning from sarcasm to delight:

That’s great ?
That’s great ?

Another challenge with communicating online is the forming of impressions and the development of trust which is needed to build and maintain meaningful and personal relationships. Without meeting face-to-face and picking up on important non-verbal cues, how do people develop a sense of trust when communicating online?

As empathy is an important regulator in developing trust, emotional expression plays a big part. In instant messaging, emojis can heighten the receivers’ empathy for the sender, while increasing perceived trustworthiness and quality of the message. Emojis, therefore, can support us in the emotional and social “work” needed to build not just personal but also customer relationships, without being physically present.

GIFs: for hard to express emotions

Another popular way we can express ourselves and engage others through online messaging is the addition of GIFs. GIFs and memes are usually used in messages as a visual display of emotional response or stance to a message or to complement text, reproducing an action or behavior that is difficult to express in a text-based medium.

Who's Awesome

The rise in popularity of GIFs has prompted researchers to investigate their impact on engagement and has demonstrated that animated GIFS are more engaging than text or images alone, with the most engaging GIFs overall being those that contain faces and higher motion energy.

Don’t be afraid to adopt new conventions.

This suggests that the reason these are so engaging is because they mimic face-to-face non-verbal behavior. While the use of GIFs in online messaging is relatively new and not fully understood, we think it is important to embrace this cultural meme, experiment with them and seek to understand how they can be used to make communication more personal.

To get personal, embrace the new

The instinctive scepticism we have of new varieties of technological communication is based on the assumption that they are inherently of less value and quality than face-to-face communication. However, they are often rapidly embraced by large numbers of people and can quickly become parts of our default mode of communication. That swift adoption is a testimony to our deep-seated need for rich emotional cues in our communication – we embrace them because they function as substitutes for the non-verbal cues that we have evolved and rely on for effective communications.

To truly make your connections with your customers personal, bear this in mind – don’t be afraid to adopt new conventions that allow for emotional expression, because what might seem like a fad could quickly become the norm. Above all, it’s that emotional expression that can help you form meaningful relationships through your online messaging.