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Re-thinking 55/38/7

 

I have a confession.  No, not like the ones I had to do in catholic school.  (Is it a sin to make up sins to have something to tell the priest every week?)  This confession involves a little intellectual laziness on my part.  I’ve been quoting Albert Mehrabian’s 55/38/7 rule regarding communication without putting any thought into it.  Until now.

As many of you know, Mehrabian conducted a study in 1967 whereas he concluded that communication was based on 55% body language, 38% tone of our voice, and only 7% on the words we use.  Now, as a life-long stutterer, and someone who knows more than his fair share about communication problems, I should have been a bit more skeptical.  

Using the “better late then never” maxim, I did some investigation.  First off, Mehrabian himself has said, numerous times, that his research is mis-quoted.  The original study was geared toward the communication of positive or negative emotions only.  The study participants (only women) listened to a single tape-recorded word.  When compared to people using body language, and/or different tones of voice, the true emotion associated with just hearing a single recorded word was very difficult to discern. Hence, the 7% figure.

A later study conducted in 1970 showed similar results for the use of all sorts of non-verbal communication clues when attempting to convey a submissive or dominant attitude.  

However, a study in 1992 dealing with the communication of happy or sad found that even a word related to being happy or sad, spoken in a flat voice, was four times more likely to convey the correct emotion than facial expressions when viewed in a video without sound.

So, I did a little digging and found some support for the nagging questions in my mind whenever I use the 55/38/7 maxim.  But what does all this mean?

Here are my thoughts (worth every penny you are spending on them).  

  1. We need to stop quoting Mehrabian’s findings with such a wide brush and apply them appropriately.  
  2. Anyone teaching or coaching public speaking needs to start telling their clients that the words they use do matter; quite a bit actually.  What percentage?  I have no idea.  Having spent 30 years working in a research environment, I can tell you that the more variables you built into a study, the more difficult it is to quantify the findings.  This having been said, how many variables could there be in a communication?  Too many to count.  I believe that applying a percentage to “the words you use” is nearly impossible; but also, a waste of effort.  We just need to recognize that the words we use matter quite a bit, so we need to use the right ones.
  3. We need to examine the type, or intent of a communication before applying the effectiveness of the tone of our voice, or our body language, or the words we use.  Yes, if we are seeking to convey emotions, Mehrabian’s work is probably fairly relevant.  
  4. If we are trying to convince or persuade someone, of course tone and body language is important, but our words need to make sense.  We need to fashion a coherent and cogent appeal.  This will necessitate the use of the right words.

What about if we are simply trying to entertain, or inform someone?  What about one on one, small groups, or large audiences?  As I mentioned above, the variables are endless.

So, what are my conclusions?  I’m glad you asked.  First of all, let’s stop telling people that the 55/38/7 rule applies to all communications.  We know it isn’t true, and it’s intellectually lazy.  Second; we need to re-examine how we do look at effective communication.  The axiom “know your audience” becomes ever more important.  Third; think about the type of message or communication we are delivering and let that drive the preparation and consideration of tone, body language and words; and finally, don’t abandon Mehrabian entirely.  Keep working on using the right vocal tools and body language.  We know they are effective; maybe just not as much as some people say they are.

Anybody have any thoughts?

(I’ve included below references to the studies I mentioned if anyone is interested).

Mehrabian, Albert; Wiener, Morton (1967). “Decoding of Inconsistent Communications”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 6 (1): 109–114. doi:10.1037/h0024532. PMID 6032751.

Mehrabian, Albert; Ferris, Susan R. (1967). “Inference of Attitudes from Nonverbal Communication in Two Channels”. Journal of Consulting Psychology 31 (3): 248–252. doi:10.1037/h0024648.

^ Argyle, Michael; Salter, Veronica; Nicholson, Hilary; Williams, Marylin; Burgess, Philip (1970). “The Communication of Inferior and Superior Attitudes by Verbal and Non-verbal Signals”. British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology (9): 222–231.[volume & issue needed]

^ Hsee, Christopher K.; Hatfield, Elaine; Chemtob, Claude (1992). “Assessments of the Emotional States of Others: Conscious Judgments versus Emotional Contagion”. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 14 (2): 119–128.

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