Recently I was roused by the statement, heard on a BBC program, that the words used in spoken communication account for only 20 per cent of the message; the inference being that the rest is conveyed by body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions.
You can imagine what a blow this can be to a writer. Wow! I thought, this means that 80 percent of what I want to convey is completely lost when I send an e-mail, a blog post, or worse, a text message or a Tweet! A phone call is limited enough, since you can’t see who you’re you’re talking with, though some people can be witheringly effective with tone of voice.
Measuring such things is extremely difficult, since people express themselves differently whether engaged in a smart-phone thumb exercise or a whole-body job.And different people hear and react to interpersonal communication differently — think how unbearably dull life would be if it were otherwise. The question of whether he or she knows and trusts the speaker is merely the most obvious of a myriad variables in the way people absorb messages.. Yet in the olden days (1971) Albert Mehrabian of UCLA concluded that three main factors determine whether a listener will approve of a person who is uttering some message – words (7 per cent), tone of voice (38 per cent) and body language (55 per cent).
Seven per cent?? Mehrabian later clarified his research, explaning that the “7%-38%-55% rule” only applies to certain well-defined experimental cases. A 2004 book on body language quoted him as saying “that the verbal component of a face-to-face conversation is less than 35% and that over 65% of communication is done non-verbally.”
Though some specialists will put nonverbal cues as responsible for only 50-65% of communication, the Mehrabian “rule” is still quoted, notably by consultant James Borg, author of Body Language: 7 Easy Lessons to Master the Silent Language.
Though the huge number of variables involved in making an intensive study of the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal cues to communication makes the task virtually impossible, fortunately we can generalize on certain statements. Plainly, in Borg’s words, “feelings are communicated more by nonverbals.than by a person’s words.”
The photograph at the top of this page illustrates why I care. Are we giving up quality information, quality communication, and quality living by relying too much on cryptic, stripped down messages? I’m reminded of a line attributed to no less than Albert Einstein, a man who died in 1955, long before the internet days: “I fear the day when technology overlaps our humanity. It will be then that the world will have permanent ensuing generations of idiots.”
Are we heading along that path? Or is smartphone socializing just another growing-up “phase”? I fervently hope the latter is true, for we are social creatures and live, in-person communication is crucially important if anyone is going to enjoy a satisfactory lifestyle .Effective talkers get their stories across with voice, body language, and facial expressions. All three are required for success in socializing and business conduct alike. People who lack a useful suite of conversational skills are short-changing themselves and, perhaps, widening the socioeconomic gap between the well-off and the not-so-well-off.
In his book Reunion, Alan Lightman said: “That has been the great achievement of our age: to so thoroughly flood the planet with megabits that every image and fact has become a digitized disembodied nothingness. With magnificent determination, our species has advanced from Stone Age to Industrial Revolution to Digital Emptiness. We’ve become weightless, in the bad sense of the word.”
Lightman is plainly wrong. Yet how wrong is he? It is not unthinkable that in some dystopian future those who can still read will look back and marvel at his gift for prophecy. Digital communication should not of course be banned, neither should it be stifled. It is a good thing. But like other good things it has another side. We and our children should realize that over-use of a limited form of communication will present us with information — and conversational capability — that are similarly limited. .
Good conversation, one-hundred-percent enjoyable up-close communication, is out there, and we owe it to ourselves to join in. The same goes for printed media, when there is space for well-chosen words to help compensate for the lack of real-life sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing. Other beings are not so endowed. Let’s make sure we preserve this precious part of our human heritage.