An April 2013 New Scientist article “Body language: what our movements really reveal”, by Caroline Williams, highlights a number of myths about “reading” body language, many of which are presented as ‘facts’ in management training and development programmes without the supporting evidence to demonstrate their accuracy. This lazy repetition of assertions that make the trainer sound insightful or that are simply attractive sound bites is bad practice and could cause damage by perpetuating myths that are either untrue or,at best, half-truths.
For example, how many trainers will admit to repeating one of the canards cited in the article rather than checking the evidence first: that 93 per cent of our communication is non-verbal, and only 7 per cent is based on what we actually say. This figure came from research conducted over 40 years ago by Albert Mehrabian, a social psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. He found that if the unspoken message conveyed by tone of voice and facial expression differed from the word being used (for example, saying the word “brute” in a positive tone and with a smile), people tended to believe the non-verbal cues over the word itself. From these experiments Mehrabian calculated that perhaps only 7 per cent of the emotional message comes from the words we use, with 38 per cent coming from tone of voice, and 55 per cent from other non-verbal cues.
The article explains that Mehrabian has spent much of his time in the past forty years explaining that he never meant this formula to be generalised, and that it only applies to very specific circumstances — when someone is talking about their likes and dislikes. Mehrabian claims that “unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable” and so the oldest stat in the body language book isn’t quite what it seems. As Williams points out, if we really can understand 93 per cent of what people mean without using words, we don’t need to learn foreign languages and we would never get away with telling a lie.