Catchphrases · Learning · Smart Thinking

Communication and percentages

My piece earlier this month about Blue Trees was based on ideas that I came across in various training courses more than ten years ago. These ideas were taught with great confidence, and as if they apply universally, but they do not seem to apply to me. Another subject, also taught with confidence, but not much evidence, was about non-verbal communication.

Here’s the theory. Only 7% of what people communicate is in the words that they use. 93% is not about the words at all. 55% of communication is “non-verbal” (you might call it body language), 38% is in the things conveyed by your voice (tonality, pitch, speed and so on) and only the remaining 7% is in the content, the words that you use. Does this strike you as correct? It might be true for some people (people who don’t listen, or people with very short attention spans, or people who fancy themselves as mind-readers) but for some of us the words that people use are at least as important as how they say them. If you are writing things down it should be all about the words, but of course many people use emojis just to make sure we can imagine the expressions on their faces. I can’t do it myself, you’ll just have to read the words.

I mentioned this idea (that 93% of communication is not about the words themselves) to my brother soon after one of these training courses and he said, “That’s exactly what Will Smith says in his new movie,” although apparently Smith’s character says that only 6% of communication is in the words that people use. It was in a movie that I haven’t seen, either “Hitch” or “The Pursuit of Happyness”. If I ever see either of them I’ll let you know which one it was.

As I wrote in a piece about the song “Delilah” I am both a literal speaker and a literal listener. If someone asks me whether I feel cold my answer will be truthful, and it will usually be “No”. If I feel cold I’ll do something about it. The person asking the question, “Do you feel cold?” might be communicating, in an oblique way, that they feel cold, and that they want you to do something about it: close a window, or turn the heating up, or fetch them an extra layer. This is inferential speech and many inferential speakers are also inferential listeners, trying to infer messages that might not be in the words themselves. We have a catchphrase about this, based on some people my wife worked with many years ago, early in our married life. She would have meetings with consultants, using clear language about what was happening, but this wasn’t clear enough for some of them. “Oh, I get you,“ they would say, and “I see where you’re coming from.” And they would read meanings into her words that were not there, and would end up with a very different opinion about what was being said than was contained within the words themselves. We had a lot of fun with this in the year or so that we were both commuting to the same town in Surrey. One of us would make an observation, about anything or nothing in particular, and the other would say, “Oh, I get you. I see where you’re coming from.” Many commuting hours passed this way. We love catchphrases.

Even if the majority of people pay more attention to how you say things rather than what you say I am sure that there are plenty of us who care more about the words themselves. I’ll do what many people do with percentages and make something up: 7% of us care more about the words than everything else put together, and we’re the same 7% who know the lyrics to hundreds of songs, or can tell hundreds of jokes. “Do you get me? Do you see where I’m coming from?”



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