“Nonverbal communication accounts for 93% of all communication” – this claim is the biggest distortion repeated in books, newspaper articles, and communication training sessions. Unfortunately, many people have believed and perpetuated this claim. It is remarkable that this myth is propagated by authorities in the field of communication. I myself came across it in many prestigious publications, and I remember being most surprised when I encountered this misconception in an excellent book dissecting Steve Jobs’ communication techniques.
So, where did this misconception originate?
To understand the true meaning and context of Mehrabian’s research, we need to go back to the 1960s. Albert Mehrabian, a renowned professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, conducted a series of studies on nonverbal communication. His research focused on understanding how people interpret conflicting messages – situations where the verbal content of a message contradicted the tone of voice or facial expression.
Mehrabian’s experiments involved presenting participants with facial photographs and recorded voices expressing different emotions. The participants were tasked with assessing which element of the communication – facial expression, tone of voice, or verbal content – was most crucial in determining the true meaning of the message.
The results showed that when the verbal content conflicted with the tone of voice or facial expression, participants often relied on nonverbal cues to interpret the true meaning of the message. In these specific conditions, Mehrabian’s research attributed 55% of the message’s significance to facial expression, 38% to tone of voice, and only 7% to verbal content.
How was the research misinterpreted?
The failure to understand the true context of Mehrabian’s research led to the widespread belief that 93% of communication is nonverbal. In reality, the study focused on situations where elements of communication were contradictory. In other words, the research cannot be applied to all forms of communication but only to situations where verbal and nonverbal elements of communication are in conflict.
Additionally, Mehrabian’s study was limited to emotional communication. It did not encompass many other aspects of communication, such as information transfer, negotiation, learning, or problem-solving. In these contexts, verbal content often plays a much more significant role.
Another important aspect often overlooked is the fact that only women participated in Mehrabian’s experiments. Specifically, female students from the University of California, approximately the same age and cultural background. Therefore, various things can be said about this experiment, but certainly not that the group was representative of the entire population.
How should we interpret Mehrabian’s research?
So, how should we interpret Mehrabian’s research? First and foremost, we should remember that it is relevant in a specific context – that of conflicting emotional communication. However, it cannot be applied to all forms and contexts of communication.
Mehrabian’s research is crucial because it highlights the importance of nonverbal communication, especially in conveying emotions. However, it is equally important to understand that nonverbal communication does not replace verbal communication. They complement each other, and the true meaning of a message often arises from the combination of both elements.
Communication is a complex process that involves many different elements – verbal and nonverbal. Whether we are speakers, listeners, readers, or viewers, our understanding of communication must encompass all these elements.
So, if you come across information in your next communication training, book, or article stating that the weight of communication is distributed as follows:
- 55% facial expression
- 38% tone of voice
- 7% verbal message
you should immediately be cautious.
The true interpretation of Mehrabian’s research is as follows: In situations where verbal and nonverbal communication are conflicting, particularly in the context of emotional communication, people tend to rely more on nonverbal communication (facial expression and tone of voice) than on verbal content to interpret messages.
To elevate your communication – both verbal and nonverbal – to a masterful level, ask me about my communication trainings.