Following on from my post about the 55% – 38% – 7% body language myth, it strikes me that if the myth was true – that words only account for 7% of any communication – why both learning different languages? It’s true that many people travel to far off lands and instead of learning the lingo, just speak more slowly, more loudly, add an ‘O’ at the end of words, and gesticulate furiously. However, does this mean any bewildered local person gets 93% of the meaning? Of course not! Instead they can be 93% sure that the traveller was too damn lazy to buy a phrase book!
Now, imagine going to a lecture in a foreign language. Would you be able to discern 93% of the technical information from the speaker’s tone of voice and hand gestures? Afterwards, perhaps you could rent a foreign language DVD and switch off the subtitles and enjoy all the subtleties of the story. And why aren’t mime artists the most highly paid people in the world? After all, they must be the best communicators. Why didn’t President Obama give his inaugural ‘speech’ through the medium of dance?
In each of these scenarios it’s obvious that the words account for much more that the often reported 7% of communication. For if words are so unimportant, then we do we both to continue to use them? Why don’t we just grunt and point? And how do ‘body language experts’ communicate the relative importance of words to body language? Do they ‘moon walk’ or communicate through the parlour game of charades? Goodness know they should for the sense they make, but no: they use words! And, it’s clear that what is at fault is the inability of some so-called ‘body language experts’ to put the proper value on words and actually read the bloody research they cite! Perhaps they were paying too much attention to the rustle of the pages or the book cover instead of giving due prominence to the printed word.
When we actually read the research by Albert Mehrabian that gave us he 55-38-7% rule we learn that body language and tone of voice have prominence over words only when we are forming an attitude about another person, that is, deciding whether or not we like them. It’s that specific. It’s certainly no antidote to the ‘Tower of Babel’ language divide.
Although, the statistics are often quoted out of context to falsely inflate the importance of body language in everyday communication, the research has important implications for first impressions. When plucking up courage to speak to someone it’s important to know that people pay less attention to what we say but more to the general impression we make. So, we don’t have to say something super-intelligent or offer a witty one liner or a cheesy chat up line. In the initial stages, it’s a smile that makes all the difference. Once you’ve ‘broken the ice’, words become more important. Even more important is that we learn to listen to them.