I heard it again just last week, and I can’t keep quiet about it any longer. You’ve probably heard it, too. At some point, you have probably heard a communication expert say, “Ninety-three percent of communication is non-verbal.” Were you startled by that statistic? Did you wonder where it came from? Did you suddenly envision yourself speaking English in front of a room of Russian-only speakers and reveling in the knowledge that they were getting 93% of what you said? (Yeah, right!) I hope you see that this last point only highlights the absurdity of that claim.
Did I say “absurdity”? Yes, and I chose that word intentionally. This is not to denigrate the original research (yes, there was some) behind this claim, but rather to highlight the deeply flawed way in which it has been misused.
In 1967, UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian, Ph.D., published the results of two studies which looked at how people formed attitudes toward a speaker when words, facial expressions, and tone of voice were inconsistent. Combining the results of those studies gave the oft-cited “7/38/55 rule.” Supposedly, this rule means that seven percent of communication is verbal (the words that are said), 38% is vocal (how the words are said), and 55% is facial expression. (Notice that this rule actually says nothing about body language.)
There are two problems with the way these results are commonly quoted, accorded to professor Mehrabian himself. (You can easily verify this by Googling the phrase, “Mehrabian study.”) The first problem lies in ignoring the limitations of the research design, which consisted of asking participants to assess the emotional state of a speaker based on hearing a single recorded word. That’s right – you hear one word, and you are asked to assess the speaker’s emotional state. The second study introduced pictures into the mix. You can read a concise summary of how all this was done here.
One word. Think about that for a moment. Is it any wonder these studies give short shrift to verbal content?
And let’s not forget the second problem. These studies had nothing to do with message – they were entirely about assessing the speaker’s emotional state. To be even more specific, what they attempted to measure was “likability.” Or, as the professor puts it,
“Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking”
He also warns, however, that “Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.”
So there you have it. Out of a pair of studies which used the least possible verbal content, we get a formula saying verbal content carries little weight. What a surprise! But keep in mind, even this limited result applies only to assessing how likable a speaker is; it has nothing to do with message content.
There is a third problem with citing these results, and it is one that applies to the use of any purportedly scientific study. No study result should ever be considered valid until it has been replicated by other studies. I have never heard anyone cite any other studies which claim to have validated Mehrabian’s results. Have you? If so, I’d love to hear about it.
So, the next time you hear someone claim, “93% of all communication is non-verbal,” you have a choice. You can smile inwardly and say to yourself, “I know better.” Or, if you consider it appropriate to do so, you can challenge the speaker to back up that claim and see what he or she actually knows about Professor Mehrabian’s work. It should be an interesting discussion!