This is why “93% of communication is nonverbal” is a myth

Have you ever heard of the claim that 93% of communication is nonverbal? This often-repeated claim states that 55% of what you communicate comes from your facial expressions, 38% from your tone of voice, and the words you speak are only responsible for 7%. Although non-verbal communication is of course important, these numbers are not true at all. What is wrong with them? And where do they come from?

This post is also available in Dutch.

Where does the 55-38-7 rule come from?

These numbers are based on two studies from the seventies by Albert Mehrabian and colleagues. In the first study, participants watched short video clips of a woman saying different words. Words were either positive (e.g. thanks), neutral (e.g. maybe) or negative (e.g. terrible) in meaning. She also said each word in a positive, neutral or negative tone of voice. The participants had to imagine the woman was saying this word to another person, and had to judge how positive the woman’s attitude was towards the other person. Whether the woman’s attitude was perceived as negative or positive was based more on how she was speaking than on what she was saying. So for example, if she said “thanks” with a negative tone, people thought her attitude was negative. This is something you might have experienced yourself 😉 

In a similar experiment, the researchers then compared tone of voice to facial expressions. Whether the woman’s attitude was perceived as negative or positive was based more on her facial expressions than on her tone of voice. So if the woman had a positive tone but an angry face, people judged her attitude as negative. The researchers then combined the results from the two studies, and said that the communication of attitudes is 55% due to facial expression, 38% to tone of voice, and only 7% due to the words that are actually said. This is how the 55-38-7 rule was born…

What is wrong with the 55-38-7 rule?

Since then, the 55-38-7 rule has spread around the world and has become one of the biggest myths about nonverbal communication. But what is actually wrong with it?

One problem is that the rule only looks at three things: the words, the tone of voice and the facial expression. But when we communicate with each other, a lot of other nonverbal signals also play a role. During conversations, we use our hands to point at things, we nod when we agree with something, we move our bodies backwards when we are surprised… The percentages for these other signals from the hands, head, mouth, eyes, and body, are not included in the rule.

Moreover, the importance of verbal and nonverbal communication depends on what is being communicated (for example: emotions versus factual information) and in which context (for example: talking on the phone versus chatting face-to-face). The studies above only looked at the communication of attitudes, and only in the specific case where different signals contradict each other. So it’s probably true that when your partner says “thanks” in an angry way, you should watch out. However, this does of course not mean that whenever we communicate with someone else, what we say is not important!

So we cannot simply say that 93% of communication is nonverbal. It is impossible to find a general rule, like the 55-38-7 rule, that applies to all communicative situations. Of course, nonverbal communication is important, but so is verbal communication! So, beware: Your words matter, too!

Author: Marlijn ter Bekke

Buddy: Francie Manhardt

Editor: Monica Wagner

Translator: Ellen Lommerse

Editor Translation: Felix Klaasen

Photo by fauxels on Pexels (license)

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