The importance of nonverbal means of communication

My interest in nonverbal means of communication began with the acquaintance of the research by Albert Mehrabian [mǝ ‘rӕ biǝn]1. He is a famous scholar who works in the field of Psychology and lives in the US.

Interestingly, Mehrabian managed to prove experimentally that nonverbal means of communication are responsible for up to 93% of information that we transmit or receive in a communicative act (including 38% in paraverbal means such as volume of speech, intonation, and silence or pauses). Only 7% of information has been shown to be transmitted via the verbal channel (i.e. words).

However, surprising this may sound, nevertheless, it makes sense. Let us consider the following example: a little boy breaks an expensive vase; his mother shakes her head and says “What a good boy…”. What she really means is “bad boy”, but both her son and she can easily deduct the real meaning based on her intonation and other nonverbal means (e.g. shaking of her head). Note that in this case, the verbal component of the phrase (i.e. what the mother is saying) is actually in contradiction with the real meaning; however, the nonverbal cues are trusted more than the words.

It is worth mentioning, however, that the experiments conducted by Mehrabian and the example that I have provided above are based on affectionate communication and the role of nonverbal means of communication may be different based on the context of the situation in which a particular communicative act occurs.

Have you ever been in or witnessed a situation which illustrates the importance of nonverbal means of communication, or on the contrary underlines the role of words?

Please, share by commenting on this post or posting a new one.

Thanks,
Iaroslav

1 I have come across many different ways in which other scholars referred to him, particularly in languages other than English. Therefore, in order to avoid potential difficulties or errors, I am providing the transcription. This pronunciation is based on the interview with the scholar which I have recently listened to.

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10 Comments

  1. Another example which illustrates the importance of nonverbal means of communication may be a conversation between a young lady and her beloved one: she says to him “My little ugly monster” and gently strokes him on the head. What she really means is “my big handsome gentleman”, however, both the young man and she can easily deduct the real meaning based on the nonverbal means of communication including the intonation (the paraverbal means or vocalics) and her stroking gesture.

  2. Sometimes Mehrabian’s research on nonverbal means of communication is referred to as 7%-38%-55% rule, where 7 is the percentage of information that we exchange via words, 38 is the percentage of information transmitted via paralinguistic means and 55 is the percentage of information communicated via other nonverbal means (e.g. gestures, smiles, and interpersonal space).

  3. Tanis Litwinow

    Hi Iaroslav!
    I like your blog!
    Reading your latest post, it reminded me of a TV show I am currently watching.. “Lie To Me”..where the main character is a psychologist who studies “micro expressions” to expose lies.
    Definitely the same type of subconcious expression!

    • Hi Tanis,
      Thanks for your comment! I have not watched this TV show yet. But, indeed, the detection of deception is one of the directions for nonverbal scholarship. Another one is using nonverbal means of communication (NMC) in order to improve the quality of education. I have recently written a short article on the benefits of using NMC in Second Language Acquisition. What is interesting is that if an instructor uses NMC, they help in two important ways ways: first, it is easier for instructors to communicate with students using NMC and second, it is easier for students to absorb information when it is presented with the help of gestures and variation in tone as well as other nonverbal cues.

      I hope to see more of your comments and posts!

  4. In Anthropology and linguistics, nonverbal means of communication are often referred to as contextualisation cues (e.g. Gumperz, 1992).

    References
    Gumperz, J. (1992). Contextualisation revisited. In P. Auer & A. Di Luzio (Eds.), The Contextualisation of Language (pp. 39–53). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

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