Tuesday, 22 March 2016

On Albert Mehrabian

Pity the distinguished Iranian-born American academic Albert Mehrabian, currently Professor Emeritus of Psychology, UCLA. In the 1960s he conducted some trail-blazing research into the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages in the narrow (though certainly vital) area of expressing feelings and emotions. His findings, first published in 1967  were almost immediately misunderstood and misapplied.

His findings have since circulated as the 7%-38%-55% Rule, allocating percentiles for the relative impact of words when speaking (7%), tone of voice (38%), and body language (55%). For decades gormless prats in shiny suits claiming to be 'communication experts' have earned a dishonest buck by peddling the clearly preposterous notion (never advanced by Mehrabian)  that 95% of all communication is non-verbal. A moment's reflection will confirm that any such claim is piffle and balderdash. How (for instance) do we manage, with only 5% of language at our disposal, to conduct a telephone conversation?

On his website Mehrabian explicitly (and with admirable politeness) distances himself from the thoughtless appropriators and exploiters who regularly distort his findings for their own fatuous reasons in their training sessions. He writes:

"Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking. 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. Also see references 286 and 305 in Silent Messages – these are the original sources of my findings."

Worth repeating: 

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

Could that be any more explicit? 

Whenever somebody flings the Rule at me and claims it applies to all verbal communications  (and it's happened three or four times over the years at the kind of mental sauna training session still favoured by failing corporations) my hackles rise. Why, one wonders, are people so keen to believe it, unquestioningly? Why are 'experts' so unreflecting and incurious and uncritical? I can think of four reasons (although there are certainly many more):

a) it implies that fluency and eloquence are inefficient, or at least insufficient;

b) it confirms a widespread prejudice against eloquence (which can, admittedly, be a pain in the arse in the wrong hands);

c) it offers consolation to poor communicators;

d) it makes the 'communication 'expert' sound . . . well, expert. When he or she offers this counter-intuitive (and untrue) 'fact' he or she probably believes that he's won over a hitherto sceptical audience who will now gratefully and unqueryingly lap up whatever bum fodder is on the agenda.

Language, as any fule kno, only has meaning in context. And as any rule kno there's more to language than meets the ear. Or eye.

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