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January 01, 2022

Is Human Communication 93% Nonverbal?

Myths are scientifically incorrect and false stories, beliefs and ideas but they sound amazing and amusing. Moreover, myths are used for massive marketing too, just by adding their credible origins while making confident claims. Especially the one which has been gracefully given birth to in 1967 has taken the whole world by storm and quite essentially the small community of body language enthusiasts, aspirants, analysts, experts, speakers, instructors, coaches and trainers. It is The Convenient Myth of 93% share of nonverbal clues in human communication. Unfortunately, it's widely cited by academic institutions too.

Mehrabian 7-38-55 Rule

Prof. Dr. Albert Mehrabian conducted two separate studies at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with only 37 female psychology students about Which clues are emphasized, prioritized or given weightage to while understanding EMOTIONS, FEELINGS and ATTITUDES of a speaking individual by the audience. Based upon the answers given by the participants, only 7% emphasize was given to words
while 93% emphasize was given to body language, facial expressions and the different tones of voice of the speaking individual.

According to the conclusions derived from Prof. Dr. Mehrabian's study, an emotionally charged interpersonal message is or can be identified almost nonverbally i. e. 93% out of both verbal and nonverbal clues. As the study suggested, an emotionally charged message conveyed by an individual can largely and precisely be identified by the individual's para-language and body language including facial expressions. These two components roughly made up to 38% and 55% of the message respectively in the 7-38-55 rule.

Prof. Dr. Albert Mehrabian
It's critically important to keep in mind that Prof. Meharbian's study was only related with emphasizing clues while understanding EMOTIONS, FEELINGS and ATTITUDES of a speaking individual. Nevertheless, the rule is wrongly interpreted, widely referred and conveniently cited by many.
As the three numbers of the rule are easy to remember and recite, many people started boldly claiming the total percentage of nonverbal clues in any kind of human communication as 93%. Importance of words was greatly undervalued.

Prof. Dr. Mehrabian himself has humbly clarified at many times that his famous rule is overly generalized. It has never ever been his conclusion that any human communication in general follows the 7-38-55 rule or has 93% share of nonverbal clues. He only believes that it was applicable within the context of interpreting the affect or emotional state of a speaking individual by the audience. However,
nonverbal share is entirely relative in human communication and I'm going to prove the same.

Although Mehrabian Rule was simply the rough estimation, we get totally different shares of nonverbal clues in different situations, circumstances and conditions if we strictly adhere with the numbers from the same rule. If audience can see only the face but not the body of the speaker then the share of nonverbal clues would be less than 55% due to detectable facial expressions. If only voice of the speaker can be heard then the share of nonverbal clues would be roughly 38% due to detectable para-lingual clues.

If it was only about communicating emotions, feelings, sentiments, attitudes and different psychological states then we wouldn't have transformed ourselves into the present form at all. Unlike other creatures, we're a highly technological, knowledge sharing and imitating species. Our journey began in small tribal groups and ultimately ended up in spreading or dominating globally with further plans to colonize the outer space. Amount of verbal usage by us has gradually increased in our daily lives with increment in complexity, distance and interdependence.

Human communication significantly and frequently includes facts, locations, directions, dates, time stamps, geographical coordinates, measuring units, measurements, quantities, equations, findings, formulae, logical arguments, assumptions, algorithms, frameworks, concepts, hypotheses, theories, (abstract) ideas, routes, processes, stages, workflows, results, conclusions, plans, alerts, precautions, suggestions, strategies, instructions, commands, warnings, definitions, rules, regulations, requirements, (legal) contracts, (legal) agreements, treaties, testimonies, pacts, policies, norms etc.

They can be published, presented, explained, displayed or described with the help of words, numbers and characters. Graphical characteristics of printed or written text such as position, decoration, highlighting, fonts, font sizes and colors do arrange, organize, distinguish, emphasize and draw attention at some details. Therefore, graphical characteristics of written or printed text used are entirely nonverbal in nature. However, its calculable share is much less in comparison to the entire text.
Also, verbal and numerical data, information and facts can also be converted or compressed into and represented by many visual forms for better and readily understanding. Therefore, using sign-languages, sketches, paintings, drawings, photographs, graphs, charts, animations, images, signs, symbols, icons, 2D models, 3D models etc. in the human communication is entirely nonverbal in nature with its calculable share depending upon the amount of usage.
Additionally, if an individual is involved in talking about them then para-lingual clues and illustrating hand gestures do help a lot for emphasizing, drawing attention and visually explaining some details. Undoubtedly, vocal emphasizes and hand illustrations are also nonverbal in nature. However, its calculable share is much less in comparison to the content.

Some of the common traffic signs

The true purpose of this article isn't only to share critically important details and facts about Prof. Dr. Mehrabian's study and to debunk or bust The Convenient Myth of 93% or the over generalized 7-38-55 rule/equation/formula originated from the same study. My explanation and arguments simply don't end here because there's much more in our real lives.

After critically thinking over this seriously scientific topic over many days, I'm deeply interested and highly motivated to share my honest, sincere and meticulous insights and views about the percentage of nonverbal share in (face to face) human communication, considering different kinds of possible situations and circumstances in daily life.

Consider yourself in four different situations in which you’re interacting or you need to interact with four different kinds of individuals i. e. an infant, a man fatally injured after meeting an accident in front of you, an old man communicating only through a sign-language and a foreign lady tourist speaking in her language.

Surprisingly, the true nonverbal share or its percentage during (face to face) encounter, interaction, exchange and reciprocation taking place between you and the four different individuals would be much greater and most likely to be 100%, from either or both sides.

Please let me explain exactly how, with details as following:

1) The Infant: Due to absence or lack of verbal articulating ability at its age, the infant's body language, facial expressions and different tones of voice would convey what exactly it is trying to convey or 'say' to you in your presence.

2) The Injured Man: Due to fatal injuries, the man might not be able to speak clearly, continuously and loudly or at all. His vocal clues (if any), eyes, face, collapsed posture and visible wounds would convey his grim condition.

3) The Sign-Speaker: Due to absence of spoken words, you must rely only on your own knowledge about the specific sign-language. Otherwise, you’d need to communicate with him only
by using commonly known hand gestures, facial expressions, head movements and para-lingual clues only.

4) The Tourist: As you're unfamiliar with her language, you both need to communicate with each other only by using commonly known hand gestures, facial expressions, head movements and para-lingual clues only. Otherwise, you need to find a translator.

In all above situations, only nonverbal, physical, visible, vocal and observable clues would play the greatest role in understanding, interacting, exchanging, sharing, suggesting and reciprocating. When and/or If an individual isn't (capable of) talking (in a known language) then his/her body does (try to) communicate the same. In short, body definitely speaks when, what and/or if words can't or don't.
To my best knowledge, both spoken and written words help a lot but only if the two interacting individuals know the language and also the meanings of the words very well in the first place. If either one doesn’t know the language and/or doesn't understand the meaning of the words then irritation, confusion and perplexity is clearly seen in body language esp. eyes, eyebrows, mouth and hands.

When and/or if words aren't present, familiar, complete, appropriate, audible, readable and/or sufficient while communicating then (entire) body, orientations, movements, gestures, expressions, adaptations, stances, vocal tones, actions, reactions and responses of either or both individuals are the only reliable sources for the firm conclusion because nonverbal is the default mode of human communication.

On the other hand, if familiar, complete, appropriate, audible, readable and/or sufficient words are being used during (face to face) communication, interaction, encounter, exchange and reciprocation then congruence between the cluster of words and corresponding nonverbal clues (available if any) is the determining factors for reliability and truthfulness in the given context. Prof. Dr. Mehrabian’s study too emphasized congruence.

The bottom line of this myth debunking or myth busting article is that nonverbal share in any human communication isn't always or absolutely 93% (or any fixed number) at all but entirely relative. The nonverbal share or its percentage can and does conditionally change and even reach up to 100%.

Next time if anybody publicly writes and speaks about 93% of nonverbal share then you could confidently explain the nonverbal relativity of human communication with a few best supporting examples, including some of the aforementioned ones.
{Critical Note: Although every human communication isn't always and/or entirely nonverbal, our bodies, physical conditions, movements and actions do keep revealing a lot about ourselves automatically, unmistakably and reliably throughout our lives, which is just beyond our imagination.
When we're not actively communicating (with anybody), our bodies continuously do keep receiving and sending different kinds of nonverbal data, clues, hints, signals and messages. By majority, our bodies do receive, react, respond and reciprocate nonverbally.}
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  1. A Great and detailed myth-busting article! Keep writing!

  2. Excellent insight into non-verbal communication. Please keep it coming.

  3. If you are to quote from my work, please be careful to read the following and avoid the typical errors of overgeneralizing from my findings.

    (Dr. Albert Mehrabian in his reply to my mail with the article link, sent to him on 1st January, 2022.)

  4. Luckily, we learn new information everyday and can update folks. Instead of insulting those who followed the science at the time, you might offer enlightenment and hope for new science (which may also be debunked at some point).

    It's all a learning curve - don't judge, just help.

    Tonya Reiman, Body Language Expert, Behavioral Specialist, Speaker, Media Personality and author of The YES Factor (Via Tweeter)


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