All I ever read or hear is 55%, 38% and 7% for communication. Really?!

Sarah had an itchy nose; Paul was convinced she was hiding something from her.

I, like you, have heard these numbers trotted out with immense regularity. I was watching a fascinating video recently on bogy language: more specifically, non-verbal communication. In many respects it was very informative and helpful. Its one flaw though was its persistence in claiming that only 7% of communication was verbal: 93% was non-verbal. This statistic, as I said, has been quoted as fact since the research that published these figures was released. It is, however, much more complex, and indeed much more specifically applied; not something that can merely be wielded like a two-edged sword on every circumstance that arises.

It was Professor Mehrabian’s two studies that, combined, produced these statistical results back in 1967. What exactly was it that Mehrebian discovered? Mehabian’s research discovered that, in relation to feelings or attitudes, how much we like something is communicated: 55% body language, 38% tone of voice and 7% verbal. What has happened since is that the statistical data has been applied to any context that arises and it simply is not scientifically valid to do such a thing.

Professor Max Atkinson who has written a number of extremely useful books such as Lend Me Your Ears was puzzled by what appeared to him to be an inappropriate use of the data and, on the face of it, seemed clearly wrong. As a result, he wrote an email to Professor Mehrabian to ask him to clarify his research and its application. Here is what Professor Mehrabian said in his reply:

Please note that this and other equations regarding differentials importance of verbal and non-verbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e. like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings and attitudes, these equations are not applicable.
16th October 2002 Taken from Lend Me Your Ears written by Professor Max Atkinson

Is there anything that might be more useful when observing non-verbal communication? The good news is that there is: the 3C’s. Briefly, the 3 C’s of Nonverbal Communication are: context (the environment it’s happening in and with whom), clusters (several clues – not one), and congruence (agreement). Used all together they provide a more accurate analysis of non-verbal communication. It’s important to remember though that a person scratching their nose just might have an itchy nose!

3 C’s of Nonverbal Communication


The context that something occurs in is significant. We generally behave in different ways in different situations. With our boss we might behave in a very different way to our spouse. You’d hope so! The context can be the environment, who we’re with, what’s happening now and what had happened before. Notice how people behave in different contexts and reflect on possible reasons for those non-verbal clues.


This can be the one where everyone thinks they’re an expert. Someone folds their arms and they’re being defensive. Another person rubs their ear and it’s reassurance. However, it’s important to look for several non-verbal communication gestures; relying on one can lead to the ‘Itchy Nose Syndrome’ I alluded to in the photo. A frown, legs and arms crossed and looking away might well indicate the person’s behaving defensively; any one of these non-verbal gestures might well not!


Do the non-verbal communications agree with each other and also with the voice? Congruence is all about agreement. Congruence is the particular element body language experts, the FBI and MI5 use when watching and interviewing someone that they suspect. The voice might say one thing but does the body echo those emotions the voice is displaying? Famous cases exist where a parent has appealed for the safe return of their missing child or children only for it to be the parent themselves who committed the heinous crime of their murder. A world famous case involved Susan Smith and you can read about it here. It was the lack of congruence that ‘gave the game away’ for Susan Smith. Her voice appealed for her children’s safe return but all of the non-verbal signs of a quivering mouth, weakened voice through the emotional swelling of the passages that connect the eyes, nose and throat and other consistent emotional clues associated with extreme heartache and a yearning for their safe return were missing. Sarah Smith admitted to the murder of her children later the same day she had publicly appealed for their safe return.

So, next time you’re watching a TV drama turn the sound off and follow the storyline. See what happens! Can you work out the story from using the 3C’s? Let me know how it goes.