The claim that 60, or 80, or 90 or 93 percent of all communication is non-verbal is endlessly repeated, not only in pop culture but in the professional worlds of education, business, and in some less rigorous social science disciplines like communication studies and cultural anthropology. It is often buttressed by vague references to "studies" or "experts." It's even in Wikipedia.

The best one-line rejoinder I can think of is "then why do foreign movies have subtitles?", but is there good data on this question either way?

Assuming it isn't true, which seems likely, is there anything to it? Is there a more specific and defensible claim underneath that's being misinterpreted, or is it just pure bunk?

Do we even have a respectable way to account for "how much communication" occurs in a given exchange, outside of the rarefied case of mathematical information theory?

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    I would not see "foreign movies" as a good counter-example since most of non verbal communication is involuntarily and actors in movies play roles. – bummi Mar 24 '13 at 6:40
  • I heard that the 93 percent refers to verbal and visual, and that 94 percent was trust that you can make up from non verbal communication, trust, friendship. In 1994 around about, They did survey to see if you can tell if someone is lying better if you dont see them, by displaying some people lying on TV and on Radio. The Radio came up on top, the difference was 2-3 percent. We can measure this easily ourselves. Find some measures to quantify how much more communication happens on the phone than in person with your mouth taped over :) and write a survey for them. – aliential Dec 8 '14 at 18:35
  • Book: A Handbook for the Study of Human Communication: Methods and Instruments for Observing, Measuring, and Assessing Communication Process (Communication and Information Sciences) .... Study : is s picture worth 1000 words? .... Generally the question is termed in a non technical way, and more of a philosophical way, As such it isn't a scientifically termed question and cannot be taken seriously by a scientist, as such a question would be too vague to ask in a science review. There is no answer ask the author. amazon.com/Handbook-Study-Human-Communication-Instruments/dp/… – aliential Dec 11 '14 at 9:11
  • This is a link-only answer, which is why I'm posting it as a comment: spring.org.uk/2007/05/busting-myth-93-of-communication-is.php. Perhaps someone with more time than I have could write that up into a proper answer. It's certainly a good start to one. – TRiG Feb 14 '15 at 18:25
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    If this is so, then why does a long movie generally translate to a short book, or conversely, why does a movie made from a book typically leave out a great deal? – jamesqf May 7 '15 at 18:33

Per Philip Yaffe in 2011, "In the 1960s Professor Albert Mehrabian and colleagues at the University of California, Los Angles (UCLA), conducted studies into human communication patterns. When their results were published in professional journals in 1967, they were widely circulated across mass media in abbreviated form. Most people forgot about what they really meant because the figures were so easy to remember. Hence, the myth that communication is only 7 percent verbal and 93 percent non-verbal was born."

"The fact is Professor Mehrabian's research had nothing to do with giving speeches, because it was based on the information that could be conveyed in a single word. Subjects were asked to listen to a recording of a woman's voice saying the word "maybe" in three different ways to convey liking, neutrality, and disliking. They were also shown photos of the woman's face conveying the same three emotions. They were then asked to guess the emotions heard in the recorded voice, seen in the photos, and both together. The result was that the subjects correctly identified the emotions 50 percent more often from the photos than from the voice."

"In the second study, subjects were asked to listen to nine recorded words, three meant to convey liking (honey, dear, thanks), three to convey neutrality (maybe, really, oh), and three to convey disliking (don't, brute, terrible). Each word was pronounced three different ways. When asked to guess the emotions being conveyed, it turned out that the subjects were more influenced by the tone of voice than by the words themselves."

"Professor Mehrabian combined the statistical results of the two studies and came up with the famously misused—rule that communication is only 7 percent verbal and 93 percent non-verbal. The non-verbal component was made up of body language (55 percent) and tone of voice (38 percent). Actually, it is incorrect to call this a "rule," being the result of only two studies. Scientists usually insist on many more corroborating studies before calling anything a rule. An exception can never prove a rule; it can only disprove it."

In the words of Professor Mehrabian himself in 2009, "Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking. Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable."

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