Communications Theory

We are not monkeys – the myth of non-verbal comms

One salutary ‘fact’ that’s trotted out on almost every single piece of management training I’ve ever been on is that most communication is non-verbal. Having read me Derrida and his deconstruction of the primacy of the spoken vs the written word I’d always been a bit suspicious of the theory. And not only that, I was also aware of the popularisation of the idea in its historicity, its popularity grew in a time when Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape theory was at its ascendancy and when the idea that we are all just monkeys was seen as forward thinking science.

The primacy of the non-verbal has of course, massive implications for communications theory and practice. Even science itself. The latter most notably reliant on written peer review and not on testing ideas in the oral agora. Similarly, in internal comms practice I would often hear the face to face meeting heralded as the Holy Grail of all communications, with the primacy of the non-verbal presented as the ultimate justification.

monkeyFor my part, the specificity of the communication seemed the most paramount and while for example I might be annoyed to be fired by SMS, the clarity of the message would remain undiluted by the medium used. McLuhan may have argued that the medium is the message, but that doesn’t alter the message whether face to face or an SMS.

It was therefore with some amusement, that I discovered this 2004 posting today: An urban legend: face-to-face communication is the best vehicle for communication. Here, David Teten explains that the theory arose from a piece of research conducted in 1967 by Albert Mehrabian and Susan R. Ferris, “Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels.” Journal of Consulting Psychology 31 (1967): 248-252.

Looking at the popularisation of the theory by communication skills teachers and image consultants, Tenet notes their tendency to present it as showing that non-verbal in all comms is at the fore:

Not true. Mehrabian’s study only addressed the very narrow situation in which a listener is analyzing a speaker’s general attitude towards that listener (positive, negative, or neutral). Also, in his experiments the parties had no prior acquaintance; they had no context for their discussion. As Mehrabian himself has said explicitly, these statistics are not relevant except in the very narrow confines of a similar situation.

It would be useful to learn about other studies conducted since Mehrabian’s and if there has been any testing / comparison re online vs face to face communications. If you know, please let me know, it doesn’t need to be face to face…