The Tower of Babel & the Body Language Myth (55%-38%-7%)

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.

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Can only an expert deal with a problem?

According to a man I worked with in a former life, in an insurance company,  the definition of an expert is:

  • ‘X’ is the unknown quantity, and
  • A ‘spurt’ is a drip under pressure

Oh how we laughed. . . the first time! No so, for what seemed like the million repeats.

Repetition is at the heart Laurie Anderson’s song ‘Only an expert can deal with a problem’. So I guess an expert may just be someone who spends a lifetime saying the same things over and over again. When a bit of research was carried out on Oprah viewers, one of most popular definitions of ‘expert’ was ‘some one who has written a book’. This didn’t necessarily mean a well-researched, evidence-based book, but more a personal account of  their problems.

It’s also worth pointing out that when we see or hear an expert on TV or in the media that the selection process is not so stringent as one might think. I once asked a radio producer why he favoured one particular self-appointed media analysist (with a religious emphasis) over the official regulating bodies such as Ofcom or the BBFC? The answer came: because they are easier to get hold off and more willing to talk on local radio. So the expert may not be the best one for the job,  just the closest and most amenable.

(There’s also a lot of truth in Anderson’s song, that only an expert knows how to create a problem too).

Evidence-based psychology has so much to say about the human endeavour but is often not see so ‘sexy’ as pop psychology and ‘experts’ without any ethical code, who can say and do just about anything that makes good TV. It’s wise to be wary of ‘experts’  (X-spurts) who invent syndromes that can be cured by buying a particular product, or experts that claim that they can ‘reprogram’ your mind. Also, beware of experts who claim they can read a celebrities mind just be looking an an intrusive pap-snap. They can’t. Body language needs to be viewed in context and if they are a member of The British Psychological Society (BPS), they are not supposed to be doing it anyway.

Each of us has the answers to our own problems, and it sometimes need a qualified professional to provide the strategies to draw those solutions out of us.  If you decide you need an expert to assist you, make sure you check out their credentials. Do they actually have any qualifications? Where did they get them? If someone has a PhD from some obscure, Internet-based organization, it might not be worth a damn. For instance, in Britain, all PhD theses have to be filed with The British Library. However, that is only from accredited Universities. Also, beware of how experts refer to themselves. A qualification in NLP or hypnotherapy no more entitles them to call them psychologists as owning a steak knife entitles anyone to call themselves a surgeon. (There’s little or no evidence that NLP lives up to the bold claims of it’s more enthusiastic practitioners).

The upshot is, if you need an expert to help you solve your problems, make sure your experts have the qualifications, the tools and the skills for the job, not that they are just the first in the phone book or the closest to you. Don’t be afraid to check them out and ask questions. If you don’t get satisfactory answers, then move on!

Here’s a video of Laurie Anderson performing the hypnotic ‘Only An Expert’ (sung in English with French subtitles):