‘What do you think they meant by that?’ Making sense of social codes in online negotiations


Blog 4, of the series ‘Possible impacts of the current pandemic on international negotiation processes’.

In our previous blog posts (here, here, here, and here), we asked how negotiations actually worked – starting with the general principles, then on to the micro level, while also stopping to look at the specificities of EU negotiations. We also explained how negotiations were much like a Rubik’s Cube. The complex nature of negotiations stems from the fact that we must not only consider the matter at hand (computational complexity), but we should also factor in the personality and behaviour of our interlocutors (social complexity), as well as the environment we find ourselves in (procedural complexity). In face-to-face negotiations, we tend to pick up on the codes, clues and social signs our interlocutors consciously or unconsciously display. This can include certain behavioural patterns, which make clear that the person in front of you is uncomfortable or maybe even bluffing. However, the pandemic has highly disrupted the way negotiations are conducted. So, how can we be sure that we are still paying attention to the right codes in our new virtual environment? Has the online setting disrupted the way our brain perceives and filters non-verbal communication?
A word of caution, however. The content and codes discussed in this blog are not to be taken as a magic formula that works every time. Deciphering the codes of language is inherently intertwined with the personality of our interlocutor. Some intuitive and individual standardisation of behavioural patterns happen, obviously, but we should be wary not to take the patterns observed as gospel. In other words, our perception of those non-verbal codes is not the only way to understand that specific channel of communication.

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‘Non-verbal overload’ – what now?

Non-verbal or cognitive overload has been most commonly referred to over the past year as ‘Zoom fatigue’. To be perfectly clear, Zoom fatigue is an umbrella term encompassing a variety of meanings – from the simple feeling of exhaustion after five meetings in a row behind our screen, to complete cognitive overload.
So, what does ‘non-verbal/cognitive overload’ mean? This overload represents all the information our brain receives from looking at the computer and talking to another individual through our webcam. Our brain processes information in a very specific manner, as a result of our evolution over time. This evolution means that, for most of us, we process social interactions and decipher unspoken codes in an effortless, natural way. The first research conducted on the matter shows that our brains do not pick up the same codes, or at least are unable to filter as much input as it normally would in face-to-face interactions. As a result, we’ll subconsciously perceive much more than we are used to, and in the long run, you will develop the infamous ‘cognitive overload’.
There are lots of ways we expose ourselves to cognitive overload during online negotiations.
We are used to having a certain physical distance with our interlocutors in face-to-face meetings. There is usually at least a metre between us and our interlocutors during formal interactions. With an online meeting, we tend to have our webcam placed around 50 cm away from us. This puts a great emphasis on the face and not the rest of the person, creating a degree of intimacy normally reserved for family members or close friends. This is what is named the private sphere.
Also consider how often you see yourself during an online meeting. These video conferencing platforms allow us to constantly monitor how we look during our exchange. Retrospectively, can you think of even one moment in your life where this occurred during a face-to-face meeting? The consequence of this is that we tend to become very self-aware of how we look on camera. This can be addictive, causing us to divert our full attention from what our interlocutor is conveying with their own body language.
Of course, more instances could be added – you might even be thinking about a few right now. However, what do these observations mean? How could these changes in our social codes impact our communication and work in a day? The answer is complex and may vary from one practitioner to another. The combination of all these elements inevitably force the brain to work harder to make our communication as natural as possible – as if we were in a face-to-face interaction.
Additionally, while the brain is overloaded with too much irrelevant information it cannot make sense of, it also receives considerably less information it actually needs to, as the expression goes, ‘read the room’. Codes have changed and the cues we were using to decipher what is the most appropriate reaction or response no longer hold true online. This is not to say we are completely lost in this ‘new’ setting; quite the contrary. The more we are exposed to it, the more we are able to adapt and create new codes, new ways of deciphering the relevant information. More and more professionals work on their video backgrounds to control what their interlocutors may see of their personal life. Equally, more attention is being paid to the angle of their camera and how others will see them. It is also becoming easier for them to figure out if the tone of the voice or the exaggerated nodding of their interlocutor is due to an internet connection problem, a need to show they’re actively listening or due to a genuine expression of their feelings.


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Managing the overload

The two major challenges in the social complexity have thus been pinned down (i.e. a change but not a disappearance of the codes and the cognitive overload). While we saw above how we are slowly working to limit the negative externalities induced by the change of venue, the cognitive overload is still a very important factor to take into consideration – especially as it can, for example, make you and/or your interlocutor lose patience more easily. So how can we try to fix or at least limit that?
It is hard to know exactly how to overcome the overload. While the obvious answer would be to say ‘wait and give your brain time’, quick, practical fixes exist and work – especially since working and negotiating online could become the more sustainable practice, in light of the current climate challenges notably. These quick fixes include closing the self-check/self-view window (even covering your face with a sticky note will help), using phone calls for shorter meetings or working on the duration and number of meetings you are having in a day, and leaving you time and space to recover between two meetings.

In conclusion, social complexity is … well … a complexity. Nonetheless, it is a crucial aspect to take into account during the negotiation process. It would be a mistake to think that our typical interactions before/during/after a meeting have not changed since we moved to a virtual negotiating table. Hence we need to rethink how we approach the non-verbal codes and our ways of deciphering them when interacting online.
For over a year now, our brains have had to make considerable efforts to adapt to the online setting. This adjustment has led to two major challenges we must face: 1) the cognitive overload and 2) the change in codes and their way of being deciphered. We analysed what exactly this change of codes implies and what exactly we understand by cognitive overload: the flow of irrelevant information added to the lack of actually relevant social codes, leading us to be more tired, less patient and possibly more irritable.
To those challenges, a few very long-term solutions already exist. While we cannot offer a magic formula to help manage the change of codes, we can suggest that you reflect on what does or does not matter for you during a negotiation – what are the new elements you should take into consideration? What are the elements that would have had importance in face-to-face negotiations for you and that do not necessarily have the same meaning any more, like hand gestures, pitch and tone of voice, or nodding?
Next month, we will dive deeper in the social complexity and analyse the impact of the pandemic on the socialisation process within the Brussels bubble, after a year of pandemic. Is it a long-gone concept or is there still something happening there and if yes, how?


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Do you have questions? Do not hesitate to contact the Negotiation Team at negotiationteam@eipa.eu.

Read blog onetwo, and three (part 1), and three (part 2)  of the series ‘Possible impacts of the current pandemic on international negotiation processes’ by the Negotiation Team.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and not necessarily those of EIPA.

Tags Negotiation and soft skills