Jul 112009

Chris Sollett raised an interesting question about non-verbal communication (thank you so much, Chris) . He was referring to a crew resource management (CRM) training site I’d linked to that claimed:

7% of all communication is accomplished Verbally.

38% of communication is the result of unconscious signals and readings, such as tone or sound of voice

55% of all communication is achieved through Non-Verbal And Symbolic means (body language.)

Chris asked:

What does this mean for a teacher, should we be putting less effort into verbal communication and working more on the other 93 per cent?

I don’t understand how anyone can quantify how much information gets communicated verbally and non-verbally. So I feel very skeptical about the stats on that site. That said, we never stop communicating whether we’re saying words or not, so for example, silence can speak volumes. I love the way that site challenges some common assumptions about communication. eg.

Assumption #1

Do you assume that the message sent is the same as the message received? …

Assumption #2

Do you assume that you communicate only when you consciously choose to do so? …

Assumption #3

Do you assume that meanings are inherent in words? Or do you assume that meanings originate in people? …

Assumption #4

Do you assume that the communication process ceases after the message has been received? …

Assumption #5

Do you assume that if a communication breakdown occurs, it is invariably the recipient’s fault? Or do you assume that a communication breakdown may be a function of your own communication style? …

How more meaning gets conveyed than with just the words spoken is central to pragmatics. Helping people convey meaning is central to ELT /TESOL. So   pragmatics needs attention in my view. That said, vocabulary (and other stuff like grammar and pronunciation, obviously) is important for meaning as well, so we can’t sling the baby out with the bath water. They all seem inextricably entwined to me.

I think CRM is very revealling about ‘best practice’ in communication. For example, CRM indicates that message abandonment is a serious problem in conversations amonst NSs. Here’s a cockpit conversation from a plane that wasn’t going fast enough at take off:

First Officer: Ah, that’s not right.
Captain: Yes, it is, there’s 80 [referring to speed].
First Officer: Nah, I don’t think it’s right. Ah, maybe it is.
Captain: Hundred and twenty.
First Officer: I don’t know.

It wasn’t right, and the First Officer’s muting his concerns led to the plane’s stalling and crashing into a Potomac River bridge, killing all but five people on board.

Message abandonment problems are likely to be amplified in intercultural communication (see here). So how to address this stuff in class seems like a really important question to me.

Oh, and another lesson to draw from CRM is that language to do with building relationships really matters. But that’s something for another day…

 Posted by at 6:15 am

  8 Responses to “Non-verbal communication”

  1. Hi Vicki,

    I’ve thought a lot in last few years about the communication theory of 7%/38%/55% and some colleagues have mentioned to me that this theory is really for Americans. Anyway, do you think this changes cross-culturally? Would silent cultures like Finland, Japan and China have different percentages? What do you think?

  2. I’m afraid I don’t know who arrived at those percentages or how. If anyone knows anything about their origins, do please chip in.

    There’s certainly intercultural variation in terms of how long a comfortable silence can last and how listeners are expected to respond. Holly, you’ve been based in Finland, where presumably a comfortable silence can last a long time?

    Many researchers have written about the higher frequency of back channel expressions in Japanese conversation. There’s a quick intro to some intercultural variations here: http://www.cs.utep.edu/nigel/bc/

    I’ve never come across any studies comparing BrE and AmE in this area, so I really don’t know. But I’ve sometimes wondered if back channeling occurs with greater frequency in AmE than BrE – so to sound interested and enagaged, I might need to make more ‘uhuh’ and ‘yeah’ noises here. Has anyone else noticed a difference?

  3. Just a little note, not really important, but i’m an Adams not a Sollett, but thank you for the link!

  4. Oh my, sorry about that. Glad the link’s working and nice to meet you, Mr Adams!

  5. I’m very pleased to meet you too, Ms Hollett!

    ps Is this typical over-english politeness?

  6. I came across this on janet’s abruzzo edublog
    and it seems to clarify the statistics a bit more.

  7. Oh Chris! Putting on my ‘merican hat I have to say that video doesn’t just explain a bit more – it explains A LOT more! Thank you!
    Obviously I’m interested on the hidden and under the surface meaning stuff that goes on in communication, like you no doubt, but the words stuff has always seemed paramount to me. Here’s a lovely illustration of why we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. And now I have a name – Mehrabian – so I might be able to dig up some other research papers.
    Thank you!

  8. Just wanted to say HI. I found your blog a few days ago on Technorati and have been reading it over the past few days.

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