It’s common to hear self-help gurus and business experts chide that “communication is 80 percent nonverbal!” (Or 93 percent, or 55 percent…the numbers vary). Is it true that what you say matters less than how you say it? The answer is complex, but in general, the answer is no. Don’t throw out the notes for that big speech — what you say does matter.
Hear Me, Hear Me
This rule of thumb comes from two 1967 studies by psychology researcher Albert Mehrabian. In one, which was co-authored by Susan R. Ferris and published in the Journal of Consulting Psychology, participants listened to words spoken in various tones of voice. Unbeknownst to them, the words were chosen so that three conveyed “liking” (honey, dear, and thanks), three were neutral (maybe, really, and oh), and three conveyed “disliking” (don’t, brute, and terrible). The reader took on a positive, neutral, or negative tone, but didn’t always match what the word conveyed. Then, subjects had to guess the emotion behind the spoken words. Overall, they tended to value the tone as more important than the word’s meaning.
In the other study, co-authored by Morton Wiener and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, subjects listened to a woman say the word “maybe” in three tones of voice that conveyed the same emotions as the previous study (liking, neutral, and disliking). Then, they looked at photos of women’s faces with those same three emotions, and were asked to guess the emotions in the recorded voices, the photos, and both together. The photos got the more accurate responses than the voice.
A Myth Begins
The results from these studies led Mehrabian to conclude the following:
- 7 percent of a message pertaining to feelings is the words spoken.
- 38 percent of a message pertaining to feelings is the way the words are spoken.
- 55 percent of a message pertaining to feelings is in the facial expression.
Both in the study and over the years since, Mehrabian has pointed out the limitations of his results. “Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable,” Mehrabian wrote.
Still, like a game of telephone, this finding was warped and watered down until it became “7 percent of all communication is in the words spoken,” and “93 percent of all communication is nonverbal.” In the end, the lesson you can take home from this research is that if the emotion in the words you’re saying don’t line up with the emotion in your tone of voice or facial expression, your listener will believe the latter.
Talk Isn’t Cheap
But how accurate is it to believe emotion in the tone of voice over the words themselves? More recent studies show that people are surprisingly good at interpreting emotion in a tone of voice — but looking at facial expressions and body language? Not so much. In 2017, Yale University social psychologist Michael Kraus published a study in American Psychologist where he performed five experiments with more than 1,770 volunteers.
In one experiment, 266 pairs of strangers were asked to discuss TV and movies, then food and drink, in both a lit room and a pitch-black room. In each conversation, volunteers rated their partners’ emotions, along with their own. People were more accurate in their ratings of their partners’ emotions when the lights were off.
The same was true when other volunteers watched video of those same conversations: when all they heard was the sound, people more accurately assessed the emotional content of the words.
That’s not to say gestures, facial expression, and posture aren’t important pieces of the communication puzzle. We use many elements to get messages across, and it’s good to pay attention to all of them. But it does mean that when it comes to venting your problems or expressing joy, a phone conversation might do what a face-to-face conversation can’t.