Did you know that when expressing feelings or attitudes words only represent 7% of the message?


Baby is clearly angry, he doesn’t need words to describe it. (Photo by Ryan Franco on Unsplash)

When you are talking to others trying to express feelings or attitudes, you’ll try to express yourself with the most suitable words you can find. But none of these efforts will be worth if you just concentrate on what you’re saying.

Did you already have an argument with someone and at the end this person (let’s call him Bob) said to you:

“Don’t worry, I don’t have any problem with you.”

However, everything that you saw is a person who avoided eye-contact, looked anxious or irritated and that is in a hurry to leave, like saying:

“I’m still mad at you and I’ll not forget this so easily.”

Already happened to all of us (both the argument and the lie). The interesting part is that although Bob tells us that everything is fine, we realize that something is wrong.


How can we realize that Bob is lying to us?

Probably this is the type of question that was in the mind of the psychologist Dr. Albert Mehrabian (currently Professor Emeritus of Psychology in the University of California, Los Angeles) when he made two studies, both in 1967, about what influences people in a communication of feelings and attitudes.

The first study (made by him and Morton Wiener) allowed him to conclude that tone carries more meaning than the individual words themselves.

The second (in partnership with Susan Ferries) made him conclude that the body language (especially facial expressions) is more important than the tone when you are expressing your feelings and attitudes, by a ratio of appoximately 3:2.

These studies and conclusions were published in his book “Silent Messages: Implicit Communication of Emotions and Attitudes” where Mehrabian concluded as an overall result the famous (and infamous) “7–38–55%” rule.

From Right Attitudes

It means that, in this book, Mehrabian states, among other conclusions, that words only convey 7% of the info in a communication of feelings and attitudes. The non-verbal behaviors represent 93% of all information transmitted.

In fact, all of us can understand these results. If we see a boy yelling and gesticulating furiously, we know almost as by instinct he is very very angry. We don’t need to hear what he is saying, his tone and his body movements “speak” for him.


Are these results reliable?

Well, for that I’m going to have to explain in what both studies consisted and even where those values came from.

Study 1 – “Decoding of Inconsistent Communications”

Subjects listened to nine recorded words, three conveying liking (“honey”, “dear” and “thanks”), three conveying neutrality (“maybe”, “really ”and “oh”) and three conveying disliking (“don’t”, “brute” and “terrible”).

The words were spoken with different tonalities and subjects were asked to guess the emotions behind the words as spoken.

Study 2  - “Inference of Attitudes from Nonverbal Communication in Two Channels”

Subjects were asked to listen to a recording of a female saying the single word “maybe” in three tones of voice to convey liking (positivity), neutrality and disliking (negativity).

Then the subjects saw photos of female faces with the same three emotions and were asked to guess the emotions in the recorded voices, the photos and both in combination.

Note: the above explanation of the studies is based from the content of changingminds.org.

Overall results

With these two studies Mehrabian concluded, for communications of feelings and attitudes, on his website that:

Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking

Dr. Albert Mehrabian

My conclusions about the results

The only reasons I found to justify this rule was that 55% is appoximately 3/2 of 38% (from study 2) and that tone matters more than the words said (from study 1). The results didn’t seem very scientific to me. I think that the only purpose of that numbers is to highlight the importance of tone and voice and especially body language in communications.


And did we have a proper education to this important part of the communication?

At school, in linguistics classes, we learn first how to write and how to pronounce correctly the different letters of the alphabet and then the words. After that, we begin to interpret texts and dialogs. First simple stories (how I miss those 😊), then epic novels with complex metaphors and almost undecifrable poems. At the same time, we also learn how to give our opinion through the different themes and topics and how to argumentate.

Of course that we also learn a little bit about the usage that we should give to our voice and even the importance of varying the tone depending on the situation. But unless you have attended to a theater club or somewhere else that give you the tools to practice and improve your vocal projection, clarity of speech and body language, you’ve never had a proper education for this important part of the message.


Be careful!

The “7–38–55%” rule is commonly referred in the media, but it’s usually wrongly mentioned because this rule doesn’t apply to all forms of the communication. The results were taken and concluded from studies that only evaluates communications of feelings and attitudes.

Mehrabian himself felt compelled to write a disclaimer about this misconception. He stated that:

Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.

Dr. Albert Mehrabian

Take for example an email, it only convey 7% of the message? Or if you watch a person talking in a foreign language, will you understand 93% of what he is expressing? This little detail is as important as the rule itself.


Photo by Sharina Mae Agellon on Unsplash

What can we take to our life?

Well, there is a lot of controversy about this rule. While on the one hand the “7–38–55%” rule emphasizes the importance of the tone, voice and body language for our communications, on the other hand it seems that this values are a little disassociated with reality.

There is also controversy in the way of the studies were conducted. For example, in study 2, the subjects heard the people first and then saw their reaction. This way to conduct the tests was not the most appopriate (read this article pointing out the good, the bad and the ugly of this rule, mainly the bad and the ugly with little to no good).

However, independently of all the controversy, I think that this rule is important because remember that words are not everything.

Our posture and our behavior have an important role in what we want to say and simply being aware of that fact could be a great step towards effectiveness in communication.


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