Stop feeding body language myths

Career development practitioners need to stop feeding wrong and misleading ideas about body language, particularly in the context of job interviews. Much of this misinformation is based on misinterpretations of Albert Mehrabian’s research, much of which continues to be repeated in texts on communication skills.

Advice to applicants is seriously skewed when myths, like these four, form the basis of services to clients.

Myth 1: Body language is the main form of communication

Communicating is the process by which we relate with those around us, through speaking, listening, reading, writing, and non-verbal behaviour.

In any given context, the components of communicating will vary. It is not the case that body language always has a major impact in inter-personal communication. Consider these cases:

  • A bullying text message.
  • A feedback conversation with a manager.
  • A racist rant on talk-back radio.
  • A phone call to make a complaint.

The role non-verbal communication covers a wide range of behaviours, and what role they play will depend on details such as the medium used, the emotional state of the people involved, the nature of the information shared, and importantly, how the person on the receiving end interprets the information. Non-verbal behaviour cannot be interpreted in isolation from the context.

Myth 2: Body language can be expressed in specific percentages

The biggest myth that people perpetuate is that communication can be broken down into precise percentages, namely:

  • 7% spoken word
  • 38% voice, tone
  • 55% body language.

These figures come from Mehrabian’s research, however his research was based on narrowly defined laboratory tests using single words. These figures related to where there was a contradiction between the word uttered and body language. Certainly, where we perceive a contradiction between words and non-verbal behaviour, we do interpret the person as being, for example, insincere, ironic or sarcastic. The figures were never meant to be generalised to every communication situation.

To suggest to clients that during a job interview these figures apply is just plain wrong.

Myth 3: Body language is the main focus of job interviews

A person’s non-verbal behaviour will certainly influence how they are perceived during an interview. Research confirms that we all quickly make judgements about a person when we meet them. For interviewees, details like how they walk and sit, their handshake, what the year, and nervous mannerisms, are likely to be noticed and noted. But this is only part of the experience, and not necessarily the most important.

Where the interview is merit-based and informed by selection criteria, those interviewing are obliged to listen carefully to responses, paying attention to structure, content, and relevance. Suggesting to clients that body language outweighs the value of responses to questions is misleading.

Myth 4: Interviewers pay most attention to body language

While research shows that interviewers can and do make quick decisions about a person’s suitability, it cannot be assumed that these people lack the skills to work with their perceptions, suspend judgements, and seek evidence of suitability.

Not all interviewers are trained in interviewing, including the need to be aware of unconscious biases and unfounded judgements. Many are trained and highly skilled and therefore take steps to ensure that body language is not the deciding factor.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.