Verbal and Non Verbal Communication by Percentage

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What is the real division between verbal and non-verbal communication in terms of significance in our interactions?

You probably heard the 7-38-55 rule of communication: 55% of our total communication is delivered by body language, 38% by vocal signals and the last slim 7% is delivered by words.

But is that really true?

How the researchers did come to this interesting conclusion?

Today I’ll try to answer that, I’m going to explore the distinction between verbal and non-verbal communication, and do something that might seem a little strange since my site promotes nonverbal communication: I’m going to explain why body language, with all of its power, is not enough.

Verbal vs Non-Verbal Communication

Before going into depth about how this formula came to be and whether is it possible, let’s apply some good old-fashioned logic to answer the question – If verbal communication plays such a small role in our interactions, do we need it? Can we manage to communicate without it?

Hmm… well it seems to me that we can, to some extent. I can express my feelings easily enough and I can try to use pantomime that hopefully you will understand. But other than that, it seems like a very difficult task nowadays. Try to say anything more complex than “pass me the salt” and you’re into some trouble. Hell, we couldn’t make this conversation without words.

man shaking the hands of his coworker

Scientific Studies on Verbal and Non-verbal Communication

But let’s try the science way – let’s try to dissect our verbal and nonverbal communication to get a perfect formula that will explain how we interact…

So we made an experiment, and by we – I mean Dr Albert Mehrabian, and by experiment, I mean 2 studies done in 1967 on 30 Participants, all female.

How they were done?

The short story is that in the first study – the participants tried to determine the feelings of the speaker based on recorded words they heard in different tones of voice. The participants heard a combination of different words, varied in their meaning, in different tones: positive, neutral, and negative.

Each group was asked to determine the feelings of the speaker based on a different factor:

  • A. The word spoken
  • B. The tone used
  • C. The combination of both

The conclusion was that in the case that the attitude between the tone and the word was inconsistent (E.g. the word “Murder” spoken in a soft voice) the tone carried more weight in determining the general feeling of the speaker

In the second study, the combatants were different – we left the verbal component out of it by choosing a neutral word “maybe” and checked what was more important: facial expressions or the tone of voice.

So we got 3 facial expressions in combination with 3 tones of voice to see which component plays a bigger part. It’s a single word spoken in 9 combinations.

This time the conclusion was that the facial expression carried more weight in the total judgment. A 1.5 times more than the tone of voice.

So how exactly did the formula come to be? Well, we don’t know because it was never published. But obviously, it was some sort of super combo mix of these 2 experiments.

I don’t know about you, but when I first read about it I was stunned. I mean, think about it – the most famous formula you hear about all the time is based on this. A little far-reaching wouldn’t you say It’s almost as if Newton would try to convince the world of the force of gravity by saying that he saw an apple fall without trying to prove it.

But anyway, it’s not truly Mehrabian’s fault, because his findings were taken out of context and he was quoted several times to note that he’s very uncomfortable for his work to be misquoted so many times and so generally. Just like anyone who’s ever started a rumor, you know that sometimes it just went too far but it does teach us an important lesson.

three people discussing with gestures in place

How to Reconcile Verbal vs Non Verbal Communication

I believe a lot of this misconception can be avoided if we start to think about verbal and nonverbal communication a little differently. Instead of trying to divide it by percentage, and trying to determine what’s more “important”, let’s try to reconcile it by giving each a more specific role:

The verbal communication role would be to provide raw, informative, and neutral data.

The nonverbal communication would be used to add the “flavor” – to show attitude and emotion to the otherwise “dry” data.

So we need both – without nonverbal cues we will look and sound like robots, without the verbal component we would return to the Stone Age and pantomime like crazy.

I make a little generalizing myself here since you can deliver emotion through words (books!)  And you can use body language to deliver exact info (sign language!).

But my point is this – stop thinking in terms of what’s more important, or how exactly to measure it – just be good at both types – of verbal and nonverbal communication.

Another important thing to notice is that any study that tries to measure emotion is a little, well, inaccurate in my opinion. How can you truly start to measure it, by going on a scale of 1 to 10? It’s all very relative.

Conclusion

man thinking

Phew, I hope I didn’t chew your ear off with these explanations, but I do believe it’s important to understand the key ideas behind what we use. It was important to me to emphasize these points because I stumble into this infamous formula almost every time nonverbal communication is mentioned. I guess it became such a widespread idea because it sounds so absurd (and it is) and smart.

So next time you hear someone say, “Did you know that 93% of our communication is delivered by nonverbal means?”

Tell him to say that nonverbally.

On the other hand, we needn’t discard nonverbal communication. The trick is to combine what you say in congruency with what you do for a truly powerful communication combo.

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Stefan Speaks AI
Stefan Speaks AI
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