Have you heard people say that 93% of communication is non-verbal, while only 7% consists of the words themselves? Over a number of years I had seen this figure quoted in articles and heard it in staffrooms and teacher training sessions. Every time I came across this number the same questions occurred to me. How could it be such a high percentage and where did this precise figure come from? The message I was being given in the context of language teaching was that by learning body language our students could do away with a lot of the hard slog learning vocabulary and grammar.
Not wanting to sell my students short I decided it would be a good idea to do some research. At the time I had just arrived in Paris and so at lunch time, when my colleagues were animatedly chatting away in French, I studied them very carefully, their faces, their expressions and their body movements. Noticing my intense following of their every move, one of them asked me whether I had understood their conversation. With the help of my school French, the fact I could speak Spanish and Italian and my careful study of their body language, I had decided they were talking about their morning at work. In fact they were talking about one of the teacher’s rabbits that had escaped that weekend. I had understood 0% of their conversation and I was pretty sure that it wasn’t because I wasn’t a body language expert.
Prompted by this experience I decided to do a different kind of research, Google. I discovered that the figure comes from work done by Albert Mehrabian in the sixties and that he himself feels that his findings have been misinterpreted as people try and apply them to all communication situations. In his experiments people used only single spoken words from which Mehrabian looked at how much of their feeling and emotion was communicated by the word, how much by the tone of their voice and how much by body language. He came up with the figures of 7% from words, 38% from voice tone and 55% from their expression and movements. It is this ‘rule’ that has then been taken by others and applied to much broader situations without further experiments being done.
As a result of my research I was quite convinced and comfortable with my decision that a crash course in advanced body language was not the answer for my students to achieve fluency in a number of languages with very little effort. However, it did get me thinking about the place of teaching body language in a foreign language class. The complete acquisition of a language is often not a student’s main or only aim. Many students have a more specific goal in mind, for example, passing an exam, getting into a school or university, giving an important presentation or impressing a potential employer at an interview. A student that walks confidently into a speaking exam, smiles at those present, sits forward and shows an interest in the examiner and other candidates, will probably increase their final score simply by giving a positive overall impression.
I believe how we present ourselves as teachers and classroom managers can also be important. A teacher once asked me to observe a class of teenagers that she was having problems with. The first thing I noticed was that she had placed her chair right back against the wall, as far away from the students as possible. I’m sure the body language professional would have known whether this demonstrated fear, dislike, disinterest or some other attitude or emotion, but it was very clear to an observer that it had a strong negative affect on the classroom dynamic. In subsequent classes the teacher placed her chair in front of the students and found that this small change made a big difference.
And finally, while our students may be of diverse backgrounds, nationalities, ages, dreams and aspirations, most will share the same goal of effective communication in the language they are studying. This means that bringing in any of the many texts written about good communication should be a good choice for class discussion and debate. Rather than needing to set ourselves up as body language experts, we can discover and explore the ideas of real experts on the subject, perhaps try out a few of their suggestions and decide whether we agree or disagree together with our students. And anyway, if while discussing the subject everyone leans back in their chairs and starts studying their nails at least we’ll know to find a new topic.
Thanks for the post.
So would you suggest any body language technigues in the classroom at all?
After all, it does seem that body language in communication this emotion and feeling is important.
Though presumably, expressing this feeling and emotion through the body is something they can already do in their own language.
I remember reading some time ago that there are five facial expressions that are common to all humans regardless of background. Happiness, fear, surprise, disgust and ... I can´t remember a fifth. In which case, do you think there is a particular body language that goes with English?
Thanks for posting. The universal facial expressions are just the kind of thing I had in mind for class exploration. Paul Ekman, who spent years studying the facial expressions of the Fore tribesmen of Papua New Guinea, first published six universal emotions in 1972 (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise). He later went on to revise this in the nineties to amusement, contempt, contentment, embarrassment, excitement, guilt, pride in achievement, relief, satisfaction, sensory pleasure and shame. I’m no expert on this but he is and he has an excellent website with loads of interesting stuff. The TV series ‘Lie to me’ was based on his work and he explains on the website that while “artistic licence” is used for the programme, the techniques used to identify lies are based on science. The trailer for the first series (showing real and fake surprise) is great for class.
As you point out body language is transferable and can be used whether the student is speaking their mother tongue or another language. However, many people have never even considered the impression the way they hold themselves gives. Teenagers are a classic example, but if you think of any group of adults, take your own extended family, I think there is usually a wide range of how well a person communicates with others. The ones who are not so good could easily improve with a little work on their body language, irrespective of age!
The claim that so much communication takes place through body language arises because people count "intentional body language signals" with what Desmond Morris calls "leakage" - that is "unintentional signals" which the speaker does not want to convey. As experienced teachers, we do nat have to ask students if they understand. We can read their perplexity on their faces.
Manwatching by Desmond Morris lists many examples of physical gestures which reveal aggressive or defensive attitudes (such as folding the arms across the stomach) which are examples of leakage.Morris points out that some intentional signals are culture specific. A good example is the Mediterranean NO indicate by raising the head.
Teachers at Primary Level learn to support the meaning of their spoken language with physical gestures so that their young learners can 'see' what they mean. Teachers of young learners become experts at both using intentional signals and reading leakage.
We would all benefit from this expertise!
This neat video animation goes a long way to debunking that whole "...words only account for 7% of the message in oral communication..." myth:
Amazing how so many "communication coaches" still shamelessly wheel it out at every opportunity...
It is clear that body language plays an important role in communication. Body language has the potential to turn into a full fledged sign language. Many people who do not know some language may rely on body language to make themselves understood. And they are often successful.
Thanks for posting the link to the animation, Stuart75018!
I agree with Korosh that you can sometimes get your meaning across using mime; however, what Ekman is looking at is not just the message conveyed but also the underlying emotions linked to this message (nervous, confident, lying, scared). Like sign language, this requires a lot of study to be done successfully. Someone else your students may find interesting on this topic is John Gottman, who predicts the chances of success of marriages just by looking at their body language. Here's an interesting critique of Gottman's work, however.
All very interesting and I have to agree that the 55%, 38%...7% 'myth' needs exploring. I think the video above raises some interesting questions that can help us explore the issue further - I was very interested to see that our cartoon character uses a 'thumbs up' gesture to show agreement/approval - 100% meaning conveyed through body language! However, this gesture in isolation does not allow us to understand what is being agreed to, and this leads to the key oversight in this discussion - that context is key. Obviously when we see the character using only facial expressions we have no understanding as we have no context, the same with the intonation segue - but how often do we try and guess a persons message (and in the case of the video a complex one at that) without context? I would suggest never. In teaching students to be better language learners we should give them the tools to access messages as recipients. In L1 , as we well know, this is built on context, cultural depth, intonation, body language...to name a few. I think we need to be very careful in our approach to managing students expectation in learning to be effective listeners by over-emphasising the importance of words at the expense of the other information they are receiving. I always give my students the following example: Ask who listened to the weather forecast before coming to class in L1 and ask them to tell you what was said. As they proceed to give an overview of the forecast you'll find that it is in their own words/style. Ask them that you want the exact words they heard - an impossible feat to repeat. This is because we listen for content words, conveyed meaning and extract the information applicable to ourselves.
Anyway - just my take on why so many communication coaches may wheel out the 'myth' referred to. It is an easy-to-use yardstick, perhaps incorrectly so, but allows some referencing for students that words are not the be all and end all in understanding spoken messages, it is a complex area, but while striving to learn a second language there are many tools at their disposal from L1 that they can easily employ. Oh, and if body language/facial expressions are so unimportant why is it so many learners with low language levels struggle so much to use the telephone?
I agree that the telephone is difficult and my students often find video conferencing even more difficult, possibly because there tend to be more people involved and it's even harder to see the body language. However, for the 93 per cent people, which would you prefer to break down, the video or the audio?
Just saw this article in the paper:
Thought it was interesting in light of this discussion.