The 7% error
Have you heard that when we communicate things like body language and tone of voice are more important than the words we use? The claim is words are only 7% of the whole. I’ve heard this at more than one marriage conference, and read it in several marriage books and blogs. There’s just one problem, the statement is DEAD WRONG for all but one very narrow circumstance.
The original research, which has been taken out of context to get the 7% claim, was done by Albert Mehrabian. In his tests Mehrabian looked at how accurately people guessed the feeling behind words, images, or tone of voice. Subjects did better at guessing the emotions shown in a photo than in hearing a word spoken to portray the emotion. As Mehrabain has said, “Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.” (link)
I bring this up primarily because I am just tired of hearing the error repeated. Any advice or points based on this bogus 7% claim are questionable, and if you are thinking of changing how you communicate because of these claims I’d suggest you think again.
This is not to say body language and tone are unimportant! If your tone and body language conflict with the words you are saying, you will be perceived as dishonest. The wrong tone can kill a compliment, and the right tone can soften criticism. However, tone and body image only colour our words, they do not exceed the power of words.
By the way: This little rant is not a result of anything I have seen or heard recently. I tossed the idea into my draft folder a while back, and it jumped out at me tonight when I was looking for something to write about. I do not mean to put down anyone who has shared this information inaccurately. This is one of those errors repeated so many times we all assume it must be fact. It’s just I am the kind of person who seeks to confirms things – even things everyone knows are right.