Businesswoman gestures confusion

True or false: Only 7% of communication meaning comes from words.

If you answered True, you would have a lot of company. Perhaps you would even go on to suggest that 38% of our message is through tone, and 55% is delivered through body language.

This is one of those “facts” that has woven its way into what is considered common knowledge.  Unfortunately, what is sometimes common knowledge is not necessarily accurate.

In fact, what’s become known as the 7%-38%-55% rule only applies to very specific communication circumstances. The application of the rule to communication in general is a misinterpretation of Albert Mehrabian’s research done in the 1960s that persists even with efforts on the part of Mehrabian and others to correct the misunderstanding.

Mehrabian’s research explored the relative importance of verbal and non-verbal messages when people were communicating specifically about their attitudes and feelings. On one of the better referenced sites that discuss the topic, presentation trainer Olivia Mitchell explains that the intention of his research was to examine how people interpret feelings of a speaker when there is a disconnect between the word spoken and the tone and facial expressions that accompany the spoken message.

His initial research that fueled the 7-38-55 myth involved senders communicating a word for the receiver to interpret multiple times, with various levels of congruence between the word spoken and the accompanying tone and facial expression. That is, someone was trying to communicate their attitude or how they felt about something and the word spoken was not consistent with their tone and facial expression, leaving the receiver with conflicting messages and having to choose between verbal and non-verbal communication to interpret the message.

His research included a very specific communication purpose and a very specific communication context. It was never his intention for that narrow experiment to be generalized to all communications. Mehrabian has joined others in trying to rein in the runaway Mehrabian Myth. His website includes the following:

Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.

This is not to say, of course, that non-verbal communication doesn’t matter. Undoubtedly, a body of literature exists that explains exactly how much and in what circumstances it does matter. But it’s important to know that the research most often quoted in support of the relative unimportance of words in communications is a misapplication of the researcher’s intent and conclusions.

It is also important to consider how it is that this continues to persist. It should give anyone who has contributed to the perpetuation of this myth (author included) pause for reflection as to how we could so easily evangelize an idea that fails to answer simple questions or support simple observations such a finding might inspire. For example:

  • Could my students really learn 93% of my message if I got up in front of the class and delivered material void of words? As an instructor, if only 7% of my message is with words, think of how much we could be saving on curriculum development.
  • As a project manager, how much easier would my job be if only 7% of my communications comes from words? Goodbye carpal tunnel syndrome, hello strained facial muscles and vocal cords. Could I all but eliminate the pain of delivering dismal news of a troubled project by delivering a project status report with words that tell one story and tone and body language another?
  • Does the 7-38-55 rule suggest that we only get 45% of a message on the radio because we can’t see the sender’s body language?
  • If only 7% of the message is with words, then 93% is with non-verbal communication which would suggest that we could get a lot done without understanding a word people say. The whole world could be like the bar scene from Star Wars – multiple languages and everyone understanding each other, except for 7%.

In the world of ubiquitous and seemingly infinite knowledge at our fingertips, we owe it to ourselves and each other to be constructive skeptics and keep the bar high on what gets put in the bucket labeled common knowledge. In this case, applying the 7-38-55 rule to communications in general doesn’t cut it.

 

 

4 thoughts on “Correcting the Mehrabian Myth – With Words Only

  1. Interesting article Andrea. The statistics (7:38:55) do not matter so much as does the fact that the exercise raises an awareness of non-verbal communication.

    One of the points about research is that, to the extent that it is not contradicted by some other research, it often becomes accepted as fact.

    Have a look at the discussion I am leading on Linked In which provides some interesting perspectives on this topic.

  2. Joseph,
    I have had discussions with others about this and everyone agrees – including me! – that communications is more than just words and that the words may not always even be the most important part of a message. I think we have to be careful that we don’t set ourselves up for a false choice between acknowledging the validity of the numbers and meaning of Mehrabian’s work and the importance of non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communications is very important, but so is the research that provides insight into how important it is and in what circumstances. The hard work of science shouldn’t be undermined by allowing people to use metrics intended for one purpose to support something else, which I suspect we have both heard people do in this case many times. We owe it to people who employ scientific methods (or present ideas in any context) to honor their work by using it honestly. Fortunately, the conversation can be substantive and informative even without misuse of Mehrabian’s numbers and it sounds like you are contributing to that discussion. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Great post Andrea. We communication professionals need to continue to have this discussion on the “7/38/55 rule” and the true point of the studies. I used to misquote it as well in the early days, until I dug deeper. Recently I did a TEDx talk on the subject of “the long life of first impressions”, and I did go into this ‘rule’ and how to properly navigate and apply the Mehrabian info. Thanks for the post.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SuG-BHquAHU

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

PMBOK, PMI-PBA, PMP, PMI-ACP and CAPM are registered marks of the Project Management Institute, Inc.