Poor Albert Mehrabian. He became famous for two experiments that have been widely misinterpreted. Countless trainers have declaimed, “97 percent of all communication is nonverbal. Only 7 percent of meaning comes from our words.”
In the circumstances Mehrabian tested, people did pay far more attention to nonverbal cues than to words. However, those circumstances were highly unusual.
In two 1967 studies, Mehrabian asked speakers to say one word at a time. He then asked listeners to decide how the speakers felt about the person to whom they were talking. In the first study, speakers said nine words like love and terrible in a way that showed liking, neutrality, and dislike. In the second, listeners heard speakers say maybe while seeing facial expressions that did not match the speaker’s tone of voice. In both studies, listeners based their judgments of speakers’ feelings primarily on nonverbal cues.
However, we rarely communicate in controlled laboratory conditions, and the circumstances in Mehrabian’s experiments are nothing like a normal conversation.
So the message isn’t that words don’t matter. Mehrabian himself gives an example of a situation in which words are more important than nonverbal signals in a 2009 BBC interview. Imagine that you are trying to explain the location of an object in another room. Could you do it using only gestures? In this situation, words are far more precise.
Mehrabian says that hearing the infamous 93/7 percent statistic makes him cringe. “You cannot extrapolate my findings to communication in general,” he told BBC interviewer Tim Harford.
Why do people keep on trying to draw general conclusions from his two small studies? They may want to counter our tendency to put too much weight on words and not enough on nonverbal communication. While the idea that words communicate only 7 percent of what we mean is ridiculous, we can learn one thing from Mehrabian: when your words don’t match your body language, people pay less attention to what you say than to how you say it.
Listen to a 5-minute interview with Mehrabian by BBC Radio’s Tim Harford in 2009: http://wordsthatmovemountains.com/files/page1_1.mp3
Thanks to Colin McLean for providing enough details on the broadcast to locate the interview.
Learn more about the Mehrabian myth from Olivia Mitchell.