Whether you’re aware of this idea about communication or not, or have ever given it any thought or attention, or not, it’s been persistent. It’s a pretty common thing people say or think about how communication works. There are tweets and internet comments parroting as much. Countless business and psychology articles are littered with some version of this insight from supposed communication “experts.” I’ve even heard this claim repeated in a surely expensive corporate job training session.
People say and think this. I don’t know why because it’s wrong. Don’t believe it.
In fact, you can use “X% of communication is nonverbal” like a shibboleth. If anyone says it, you know that they don’t know what they’re talking about.
There are lots of damaging ideas about communication out there. This is just one of them.
It’s a harmful way to look at communication because it treats communication like a variable rather than a process. It also weirdly assumes that receivers can infer some exact percentage of the sender’s intended meaning, which isn’t really knowable.
The history of this insidious little nugget stems back to 1967. Albert Mehrabian, a famous psychologist, published two studies about “message incongruence.” Message incongruence, for Mehrabian, was a situation where a speaker’s verbal and nonverbal behavior did not match. Mehrabian observed how frequently people made decisions when a speaker’s words “said” one thing but the nonverbal behavior “said” something else. This was the crux of his investigation.
Mehrabian ran two experiments with 137 college undergraduates — not even close to a representative sample — and determined 7% of decisions were based on the verbal message, 38% from tone of voice, and 55% from nonverbal body language. 38+55=93.
Over time this, and claims like it, were repeated, and became a thing that we collectively “know” about communication.
Mehrabian, our psychologist in question, later distanced himself from his own claim stating he never meant his finding to apply to all communication. This is correct, it does not. Somehow, people didn’t get that message.
The study itself was elemental behavioral research. It stemmed from a psychological approach, which is wholly flawed in is view of communication. To psychologists, and many others, communication is just a variable and not a dynamic process. This view was common at the time of Mehrabian’s research and mostly persists through psychology today. There is evidence of this abound. Psychology’s view of communication is constrained in very particular ways that limit abilities to understand communication and to do it better.
In addition to being a dated scientific finding, the claim just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Distinguishing between “verbal” and “nonverbal” communication, at least in this sort of traditional way, doesn’t make much sense.
Verbal and nonverbal elements interact in communication. Communication is a process, not a variable. I admit that distinguishing between “verbal” and “nonverbal” seems like an intuitive, smart choice. It’s an easy way to get a handle on something that can be overwhelming. That still doesn’t make it the right way to slice the pie. Thinking like this eschews treating communication as a process that is always ongoing, which it most certainly is.
X% of communication is nonverbal and other claims like it are a prime example of the wrong sort of way to think about communicating. It’s not possible to point to any aspect of communication in this way and say that 93% of the meaning came from there. There’s no purpose to thinking about communication in this way. It’s not useful.
Words, behaviors, and tone of voice are all symbolic. Gestures hold meanings and have impacts just like words. They interact with one another. Different channel — if you will — similar result. Better to infer from both what someone is saying and what they are doing, the context you’re in, the goals of the conversation, and other relevant factors, instead of chalking up some magic percentage of communication to tone of voice or body language.
I question strict, traditional verbal/nonverbal distinctions in a scientific and conceptual sense. However, lessons from poker players, police interrogators, and facial and human behavior-recognition technologists all point to the potential of being more thoughtful about nonverbal communication.
As people talk during conversations, speakers and listeners often provide various combined verbal and nonverbal reactions indicating they understand, what they intend or are emphasizing, or to mask their intentions. Verbal and nonverbal behaviors get paired together. “Ok” is coupled with a nod of the head – a simple, under-utilized communication tool. If you’re a nodder, you’re awesome. Cues like nodding signal “continue” to a speaker. Eye contact – also simple, and quite under-rated. Conversely, listeners might display puzzled facial expressions or say “hold on a second” in an attempt to signal a lack of understanding. These cues may allow your conversational partner to pause, reassess and help you both focus on points of difficulty.
Nonverbal communication communicates a lot. Gestures and facial expressions make real, powerful impacts. For example:
Complementarity — waving while you say hi, or shaking your fist while approaching angrily
Synchrony — coordinating your behavior with that of the other person
Regulation — touching someone’s arm to mean “pause for a second,” to be flirty, or to mean “stop” or “knock it off”
Dominance is often expressed nonverbally. Men dominate women nonverbally all the time in all sorts of ways through their posturing and “manspreading.”
There are all sorts of important nonverbal behaviors. Digital channels and technology complicate all of this and depending on what kind of channel or platform we’re talking about, expressions of nonverbal forms of communication may vary. Physical spaces are another “nonverbal” element that shape communication. The study of this is called proxemics.
If you’re looking to dive a little deeper on nonverbal communication, Joe Navarro’s book What Every Body Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent's Guide to Speed-Reading People is a decent book to check out from your local library. If card playing is your thing, or even maybe if it’s not, Zachary Elwood’s Reading Poker Tells is worth checking out as well for some close insight on specific contexts for nonverbal communication. Alternatively, you can just start paying better attention to the nonverbal communication that is all around you.
As you can see, nonverbal communication gets quite complicated. But more than that, trying to dissect communication into verbal versus nonverbal or attribute a certain percentage of communication to one or the other isn’t just impossible, it doesn’t help us communicate better or improve our relationships. What is worth thinking about is how all the ways we use symbols — whether words, gestures, tone, space, or any of the multitude of other symbolic elements — to make meaning with others. Nonverbal communication is worth talking about, but not like Mehrabian did.
Nonverbal communication is a wonderful, nuanced, interesting aspect of communicating. We can’t attribute a percentage to how much meaning we draw from it, and why would we want to? Simplistic rules-based thinking about communication is the enemy. How we connect with one another is a far too wondrous process to leave it to that.
How could you change your nonverbal behaviors to communicate better?