Stop misusing the ‘7-38-55 Rule’

Are you using the so-called ‘7-38-55 Rule’ as if it’s a fact applying to all forms of human communication? If so, it’s time to learn that this is not a rule and it does not apply to all forms of human communication.

So where does this so-called ‘Rule’ come from?

The source is Professor Emeritus of Psychology (UCLA) Albert Mehrabian’s publications on the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages. In his studies, Mehrabian comes to two conclusions. First, there are three main elements in face-to-face communication: words, tone of voice, and nonverbal behaviour.

Secondly,  nonverbal behaviour is particularly important for communicating feelings and attitude, especially when they are incongruent. In other words, if words disagree with tone of voice and nonverbal behaviour, people tend to believe tonality and nonverbal behaviour rather than the words.

To understand why the so-called ‘Rule’ does not apply to all human communication you need to know about the original studies and their limitations.

Mehrabian’s studies

It is essential to grasp that the original studies sought to understand the relative impact of facial expressions and spoken words. Both studies dealt with the communication of positive or negative emotions via single spoken words, like ‘dear’ or ‘terrible’.

In the 1967 study by Mehrabian and Wiener 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. The experiment finding was that tone carried more meaning than the individual words themselves.

In a second study by Mehrabian and Ferris in the same year subjects were asked to listen to a recording of a female saying the single word ‘maybe’ in three tones of voice to convey liking, neutrality and disliking.

The subjects were then shown 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. The photos got more accurate responses than the voice.

These studies are concerned with communicating feelings and attitudes, specifically like-dislike. The findings point to the influence of tone of voice and body language when the situation is ambiguous. Such ambiguity appears mostly when the words spoken are inconsistent with the tone of voice or body language of the speaker.

What these studies don’t conclude

People have generalised Mehrabian’s results to apply to all interpersonal communication. They will contend that in any communication situation, the meaning of a message is being transported mostly by non-verbal cues, not by the meaning of words. Mehrabian clearly states on his website that the results only apply in specific circumstances.

It is not the case that nonverbal behaviour in all senses convey the bulk of the message. This is one of the misinterpretations of Mehrabian’s work. People say things like – ‘It doesn’t matter what you say, it’s how you say it that’s important’. Or – ‘Words carry little meaning in communication. What carries the meaning is the nonverbal behaviour.’

When it comes to liking and trusting a person, tonality and nonverbal behaviour become important if they are not consistent with the words used. If a person says: ‘I understand your situation’ and they don’t make eye contact, and rapidly move on to their solution regardless of what the other person says, then this combined behaviour is likely to be interpreted as ‘dismissive’, ‘not really caring’ and result in dislike and/or distrust of the person.

There are several limitations of the studies, which are largely ignored when the results are cited as a general rule:

  • the context is highly artificial, being based on the judgment of the meaning of single tape of recorded words
  • the figures are obtained by combining results from two quite different studies
  • the figures relate only to the communication of positive versus negative emotions and to situations where there is ambiguity
  • the second study only involved women, men did not participate
    the studies only deal with limited spoken communication and limited types of nonverbal communication.
Words and meaning

Understanding the difference between words and meaning is a vital capability for effective communication. Mehrabian’s model is useful for illustrating the impact of a range of factors when communicating and that interpreting the meaning of words is not a simple process. The meaning a speaker hopes to convey is not necessarily the meaning a listener interprets. This is the point at which the art of sense making becomes important.

Applying the model indiscriminately to written, telephone or email communication is not reliable, except to say that without the opportunity for visual signs, there is likely to be even more potential for confused understanding and inferred meanings.

Certainly care is needed in using language and vocal expression, when we are unseen.It is not correct to assume that by removing a particular channel e.g. the visual, the effectiveness of the communication reduces in line with Mehrabian percentages. The model should not be taken to mean that all written communication is inevitably flawed or weak.

Context is important. There are times when the written word’s meaning is very clear. A ‘Keep Out’ sign on a building site means what it says. Even when a person tries to include emotions in emails via for example, smileys, there is still the question of whether this is genuine. For example, how do we interpret a smiley attached to text that is clearly derogatory?

Words are powerful

Too much emphasis is place on nonverbal behaviour at the expense of the words we use. Words are powerful – they persuade, inspire, direct, motivate. Think about the role of radio shock jocks, political speeches, advertising. Legislation about defamation and discrimination focus on the power of words.

In contrast, much of what people say is empty fluff, filled with lazy speech habits that can impair a person’s ability to understand meaning. Like, you know, absolutely, sort of, going forward … to name a few.

How to use the model

Mehrabian’s model is an important piece of work. It helps in explaining the importance of a range of communication elements. Like any model, care must be exercised when transferring it to different situations. Use the basic findings as a guide but don’t transfer the percentages to every communication situation.

Rather than generalise the Rule, it would be more useful to discuss the model in these terms:

  • A person who thinks words are enough to convey meaning needs to understand that nonverbal behaviour may play an important role in being understood.
  • A person who overly emphasises nonverbal behaviour needs to understand that words, carefully chosen and delivered, are powerful.
  • It is easy to misunderstand words when the context is limited – e.g. when we can’t see a person’s face.
  • When we are unsure about how to interpret words, we may pay more attention to nonverbal behaviour.
  • We all make assumptions and judgements about people based on the flimsiest of information.
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.