Leadership

The Myth of Body Language and Its Importance in Communication

Have you ever heard the adage that communication is only 7 percent verbal and 93 percent non-verbal, i.e. body language and vocal variety? You probably have, and if you have any sense at all, you have ignored it.” – Phillip Yaffe; THE 7% RULE FACT, FICTION, OR MISUNDERSTANDING

Body Language

I am sure we have all heard some variation of “The most important part of our communication is in our body language” or “What our body language says is more important than our verbal communication.”

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but those statements are complete bullsh*t.

Entire generations of self-help professionals have been spreading misinformation and garbage advice based on it. Articles on understanding body language have spread across the Internet and all of it over-emphasizing the importance of body language in our communication. The myth doesn’t even make logical sense if you sit down and think about it for a few seconds.

 

The Myth and Where it Started

The myth originated with two studies done in the 1960’s – (Mehrabian, A., & Wiener, M., 1967) and (Mehrabian, A., & Ferris, S. R., 1967). These studies are behind a paywall so I will direct you to Mehrabian’s communication study for an overview.

Bpdy Language and Interpretive DanceBasically, as the myth goes, 55% of communication is body language, 38% is the tone of our voice, and 7% is our actual words. Are you explaining complex thoughts about your job to coworkers through interpretive dance?

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 applicableAlbert Mehrabian, One of the authors of the two studies behind the myth on the importance of body language in communication.

So all those articles you read about the importance of body language in business communication that cite the 7% verbal communication number (or something close to that); an author behind the studies is telling you that those articles are all wrong.

This is a myth that I first heard in grade school. I thought it sounded wrong then, and I think it still sounds wrong today. Now we get to sit through presentations on the importance of body language with a presenter repeating the same rehashed garbage year after year but never offering up any tangible proof that body language is as important as they are claiming it is. I personally am kind of sick of presentations and training on it. I think I get training on at least once or twice a year and it never changes. They make these claims and then provide absolutely no real-world evidence of the claim beyond vague generalities.

The fact is Professor Mehrabian’s research had nothing to do with giving speeches, because it was based on the information that could be conveyed in a single word.” – Phillip Yaffe; THE 7% RULE FACT, FICTION, OR MISUNDERSTANDING

Oh, their claims sound good. They sound wonderful and profound. They sound like it is all backed by experts, except the experts are never named and very little in the way of specific details can be stated. I can explain specifically how email is important to my job and the tangible benefits of it, why can’t they explain the specifics of body language?

 

Is Body Language Important?

Body Language is Fake News

To some degree maybe body language is important, but in most cases – NO. There is about a 0% chance that it is the most important part of our communication (*I did make that statistic up). It doesn’t even add up rationally. I would claim that it is the least important part of our communication and in most cases completely useless.

I could see body language being important in some fields of work like mental health, but it is far from the most important part of communication. Someone who is showing through body language that they are depressed probably won’t be placed on suicide watch like someone who states outright that they are going to harm themselves; because body language is more subjective than verbal language. The only time decisive action would be needed when it comes to body language is when the body is actively harming itself. I don’t think that classifies as a language when that happens.

It could also be important in fields where they have to make up signals to communicate because verbal communication is hindered. Things like sign-language and the flag wavers on aircraft carriers. It probably is the most important part of their communication at that point. Most of us won’t communicate that way because it is hardly the most efficient way to do things in most environments.

There are certain ‘truths’ that are prima face false. And this is one of them. Asserting that what you say is the least important part of a speech insults not only the intelligence of your audience but your own intelligence as well.” – Phillip Yaffe; THE 7% RULE FACT, FICTION, OR MISUNDERSTANDING

The tone of voice is more important than body language, but you know what is even more important – the actual message being sent. The inflection and tone in the voice just helps us interpret that message sometimes. It matters very little how their body is positioned, and people don’t usually change their body language much when they talk and converse unless the emotion they are experiencing becomes high or overwhelming – like during an argument and you can tell someone is becoming increasingly likely to throw a punch.

Body language can be important when it comes to social interactions, but it still takes a backdoor to the actual message and the tone in the voice. We may shift our bodies in social settings and give small non-verbal cues to each other, but we were probably already talking loudly and stating with our words how upset we were.

“Your partner might move towards you and decreasing the space between you two, if he or she likes what you are doing or asking. In addition, other liking behavior can include: leaning in towards you, feet pointing towards you and wiggling happily, legs uncrossed and comfortable, arms open and palms up, playfully fondling jewelry or hair, smiling, extended eye contact, or looking down shyly.” – Jeremy Nicholson

When it comes to romantic relationships, body language can sometimes help but it is also easily misinterpreted. You don’t know if it is you or the environment causing these positive signals. Carrying out actions based solely on them just might put you into an embarrassing situation or it may get you into trouble.

Ever hear the phrase, “it isn’t what you say, but how you say it.” This can be the words we choose but also the tone in our voice. I can say almost anything I want to my dog and be greeted with a happy response as long as I say it in a positive or excited tone. That can be a little harder to do with humans because humans can understand the words you are saying more clearly, but keeping an inflection positive while delivering bad news can help keep a situation from escalating horribly.

Experiment - (Do not try this!) Say some really mean things to a 
random stranger but say it with a smile and excited, positive, 
and relaxed posture but maintain a flat and neutral tone. 
Since only 7% of your communication is negative and 55% positive, 
they aren't likely to react unfavorably. 
*You might succeed in confusing them, especially if you use 
a positive tone of voice.

The Myth of Body Language Importance on Communication

The above is a monotone voice expressing happiness. They say they are happy. We probably don’t believe them. Imagine that voice expressing a smile with wide open arms.  Does it make it more believable? Not really. We would probably assume they were faking excitement. The voice is missing the proper tone. This is why the tone of our voice being less important than body language is ridiculous.

 

Body Language and Business Communication

Professor Mehrabian combined the statistical results of the two studies and came up with the now famous—and famously misused—rule that communication is only 7 percent verbal and 93 percent non-verbal. The non-verbal component was made up of body language (55 percent) and tone of voice (38 percent).”

Actually, it is incorrect to call this a ‘rule,’ being the result of only two studies. Scientists usually insist on many more corroborating studies before calling anything a rule.” – Phillip Yaffe; THE 7% RULE FACT, FICTION, OR MISUNDERSTANDING

Now let’s move on to useful information gained through body language in the business world. What exactly is that information? Can you list it and tell me what it is? I seriously don’t know. I hear people make the claim that it is important, but I see no facts to back it up. Quite the opposite when it comes to the facts, they don’t support the claim.

How does only being able to express some sort of emotion/feeling help with communicating in the business world? Is your boss going to even notice how angry you are if you only use body language to express it? Maybe, maybe not. How is that important if they don’t even know what you are angry about and your body language isn’t going to tell them that – your words have to.

I guarantee you aren’t using body language to instruct someone on their job role or the progress of a project. Maybe you are looking to see if they are paying attention, but that is hardly a huge message. It can be valuable, but not 55% valuable. It can cause you to shift your own verbal message in some situations while trying to increase the excitement in your voice.

Body language and art are subjectiveBut you could still be reading them all wrong because of the highly subjective nature of body language. They may be paying attention and not conveying it with their body because we don’t cryptically communicate with body language. We have words to communicate with and we have actions to see the results of that communication. We have a tone of voice that sends out way more information than how we are sitting in a chair or standing at a podium.

We have almost no use for body language beyond noticing that someone might be upset or feel confident and none of that could have any bearing on the actual real-world situation. Feeling confident means nothing without actual ability, even if you can detect that confidence because as it turns out people are notoriously bad at reading body language beyond what amounts to simple grunts of happiness, anger, or sadness.

Imagine trying to carry out a conversation with someone in a language neither of you is very good at and you both interpret things very differently. That is the world of body language. How is the common person going to do it when it takes years of research to get kind of okay at it? It clearly isn’t that important because most of us are not very good at it and we get along fine. Can you say the same for a non-Spanish speaker working in an office of only Spanish speakers?

 “Well, when I mention the 55/38/7 numbers, I clearly state this applies to certain situations and, more importantly, should not be used as a deciding factor to try and understand the situation.  A proper analysis needs to occur to fully grasp what the person’s current emotions are at that moment.” – Jeff Thompson, Is Nonverbal Communication a Numbers Game?

How can it make up 55% of our communication when we can’t understand it or interpret it correctly, and it gives us limited real tangible information needed to complete our job? it doesn’t. It’s not even close to 55%. It’s a good thing its mostly useless, we would all be in trouble. Knowing whether a coworker is happy or not isn’t going to help me get the information I need about her software application. I don’t really care how confident she is that it works, I care that it works and that she can explain things about the application.

The only real uses of body language in business situations are in areas of team building or helping to build a rapport with someone. This assumes that everyone is positive or can fake it successfully.

 

If the Myth Were True – Books, Emails, This Blog  – Are Useless

Gettysburg Address uses no body languageOne of the most famous speeches of all time is Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” Its 272 words continue to inspire 150 years after they were spoken. No one has the slightest idea of Lincoln’s movements or voice tones.” – Phillip Yaffe; THE 7% RULE FACT, FICTION, OR MISUNDERSTANDING

You are only receiving 7% of my message right now. How can you possibly understand what I am trying to say when 93% of my communication is lost? That idea is completely absurd. I know I am not a great writer, but I am pretty sure that A) I couldn’t convey this any better with body language; which might only indicate my irritation with a really stupid and persistent myth, B) If you are reading it, you are probably understanding more than 7% of my intent, including my irritation because I just told you I was irritated by it. I summed up that 55% of my body language in a couple of words, “the myth irritates me”.

The tone of voice may help some in my message. It’s harder to tell a joke in a blog post and make it funny so I mostly avoid that. I think I am witty and funny until I try to write it down and then it doesn’t work at all. I am also not very funny in person either as it turns out, and my sense of humor is not very office appropriate and falls more in line with South Park.

With written communication, you can sometimes be mistaken for being angry when you are really indifferent. You can also be mistaken for indifferent when you are angry.

Do you only understand 7% of your emails?I think most people have crafted or received an email that “sounded” more terse or agitated than intended.  A recent episode of the television show “Corporate” covered this idea very well I thought. It involved the sending of emails from a guy who thought he was expertly crafting the email and the receivers believed he was being rude and condescending. If I were a better comedy writer I would put in the joke I heard about using the line “Per my last email…”

When you receive an email, you read it back and in your head. Sometimes you apply your own tone to the message. You imagine them saying it and that can throw off what they are actually saying. That can certainly cause some misunderstandings – but at 7% that is not a misunderstanding, that is not understanding at all. We wouldn’t bother with email if the words only made up 7% of our communication.

We probably also wouldn’t bother with phone calls, if the words only accounted for 7% of the communication. By the logic of the myth, at most we only understand 45% of the communication on a phone call. We are only getting half the message because we can’t see the body language of the person. That is completely absurd.

 

 

Reflection

It is very clear and very obvious to the point of absurdity, that body language importance in our communication has been overblown for decades. I get that we want to highlight that we should pay attention to body language cues as sometimes they may convey important information – they aren’t even close to conveying 55% of our communication. In our general everyday business interactions, the importance isn’t really present at all.

Do the spoken words match the tone and the body language?  After someone falls, and they verbally state they are fine, however their face is grimacing and their voice is shaky, you might want to probe a little deeper.” – Jeff Thompson, Is Nonverbal Communication a Numbers Game?

Most of the way we communicate is full of myths – Distributed Teams or Co-located Teams in AgileTelecommuting Teams with Agile ProjectsFace-2-Face Communication May Not Be Needed

 

Sources

Yaffe, P. (2011). THE 7% RULE FACT, FICTION, OR MISUNDERSTANDING. Retrieved From https://ubiquity.acm.org/article.cfm?id=2043156

Thompson, Jeff. (2011). Is Nonverbal Communication a Numbers Game? Retrieved From https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beyond-words/201109/is-nonverbal-communication-numbers-game

Mehrabian, A., & Wiener, M. (1967). Decoding of inconsistent communications. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 6(1), 109-114.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0024532

Mehrabian, A., & Ferris, S. R. (1967). Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 31(3), 248-252.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0024648

Mehrabian, A. (1981/1995). “Silent Messages” — A Wealth of Information About Nonverbal Communication (Body Language). Retrieved From http://www.kaaj.com/psych/smorder.html

Nicholson, J. (2011). Reading Basic Body Language for Dating and Persuasion Success. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-attraction-doctor/201110/reading-basic-body-language-dating-and-persuasion-success

 

 

 

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