The outrage at Microsoft’s photo-editing blunder has sparked allegations of racism. What is surprising is Microsoft’s response in admitting that it took four people to replace the head of a black man with a white man in a photograph and forget to replace the hands! Apparently all four people are no longer with the company. I’m not surprised. However the spokeswoman also goes on to state “We are a multiracial company and there isn’t a chance any of us are racist.” But how can she possibly know this? What are the chances that it would take four people to edit one photograph very badly and cause an international outcry? I’m sure she wouldn’t have predicted that. Microsoft is a huge company and surely there’s a chance that one person in the company is a ‘teensy’ bit racist. So the ‘head-swap’ blunder is quickly followed by an an unsupportable platitude. And if Microsoft is ‘multiracial’ (which I’m sure it is) then why was it deemed necessary to prevent the Polish demographic from seeing it? Did someone make the decision that seeing a Black person in an advertisement would be bad for Polish business. If so, isn’t that racist? It may not be an outright sin of commission, but it certainly is a sin of omission.
Magazines seem to be filled with paparazzi shots of celebrity couples with captions and comments from body language ‘experts’ and speculating who’s in love, who’s out of love, who’s breaking up and who’s faking it. With such amazingly specific analysis, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that it all actually means something and we are getting hot celebrity gossip before the news even breaks. It doesn’t and we aren’t. For every stand-out expert ‘hit’ we remember, there are countless ‘misses’ we forget.
The body language experts with psychological training know that they are not educating or communicating anything psychologically meaningful but rather just there to entertain.Those without a background in psychology will just make it up as they go along in the hope that if they repeat something often enough it will become true. Ultimately the sound byte caption over the pap snap gives us no insight to celebrity relationships but speaks volumes of our obsession with other people’s lives.
Get out your own holiday snaps and inspect them. Do your red eyes mean you are possessed by the devil? Do you closed eyes mean you are actually sleep walking? If you’re caught in a few snaps with your hands covering mouth does it mean you are an habitual liar or trying to wipe ketchup from your chin or simply that you don’t want your picture taken? So despite the talk of hand positions, finger and positions, the authenticity of smiles, it actually means very little. It’s just gossip with a bit of psycho-spin to give it an air of credibility. But credible it is not.
One of the most important things we ‘know’ about body language is not true! It’s based on a distortion of research by Albert Mehrabian. Body language does not account for 55% of the message in all communication. This figure is only relevant The 55% figure is only relevant when we are forming an attitude (like or dislike) of someone. The fact that some ‘experts’ incorrectly trumpet this blatant misreading of the research (intentionally or through ignorance) simply distorts our perception of the importance of body language over words, and over context in the case of pap snaps. It really means very little in celebrity snap shots and would have to be so obvious that we wouldn’t need an expert to decode it, such as one person strangling the other. Yes, it offers an example of a particular body language sign but to say it actually applies in a particular case (such as a photo) is at best guess work and most likely flim-flam! It’s there to entertain and titillate not to inform or educate!
Setting aside the fact that psychologist shouldn’t be speculating about the private lives of celebrities, body language (non-verbal communication) isn’t as exact as the ‘experts’ would have us believe. Context and congruence are all important. One ‘classic’ signal may conflict or be overridden by other signals. A snapshot cannot possibly provide all the information necessary to make an educated guess let alone a definite statement. We need to take a video approach over the snapshot approach. To gain any insight into the state of a relationship the signals we need to consider a broad range of signs and behaviours over a longer period of time, rather than cherry pick based on a snap shot. It’s worth remembering that a turd with a cherry on the top is still crap!
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.