I had been exchanging emails with a team member in Canada for several weeks before I discovered something shocking: Robin is a man.
Fortunately all my messages focused on solving technical problems, so Robin didn’t know that I had assumed he was a woman. (Until, of course, his boss probably told him after our phone conversation, in which I referred to Robin with the pronoun “She” and David set me straight. I blushed, but I’m confident that they laughed.)
The wrong assumptions went both ways, though. After the Canadians saw a photo of the U.S. team members, they had to adjust their mental images of us. Based on Donna’s lowland South accent, they thought she was an African American. An offhand comment I made about Ben and Jerry’s ice cream led them to think that I must be morbidly obese.
We laughed about those, but what is said and unsaid over long distances can cause serious misperceptions too. A brief email can leave the impression that a co-worker is angry, when instead the person was simply rushing to do something else.
Take the time to learn about your long-distance colleagues, and give them opportunities to know you better too.
What’s the worst misunderstanding you’ve seen among virtual team members?