If there were ever numbers associated with body language and nonverbal communication, 55, 38, and 7 would be it. People often refer to these numbers as the standard for understanding nonverbal communication and expressing its importance- specifically over the words being spoken.
How often have you heard someone say over 80% (or even 90%) of communication is body language or nonverbal? Perhaps even you might have said it, but do you know where it originates from?
The numbers represent the percentages of importance of varying communication channels have with the belief that 55% of communication is body language, 38% is the tone of voice, and 7% is the actual words spoken.
Is that true? Well, yes and no.
Firstly, the history behind this often quoted, and equally often misunderstood magic set of percentages is often unknown, which I think happens to be the main reason it is not fully understood. The famous (at least in nonverbal communication circles!) researcher Albert Mehrabian is responsible for this percentage breakdown detailing the importance of nonverbal communication channels compared to verbal channels. Actually, it was two research studies (Mehrabian & Wiener, 1967 and Mehrabian & Ferris, 1967) combined that resulted in the 55/38/7 formula.
The Mehrabian and Ferris study actually consists of a predecessor formula to the 55/38/7 formula: 60/40. The 60/40 formula they created represents the comparison of importance between facial (60%) and vocal (40%) components in regards to a person's attitude.
The main issue here is, and similar to the general study of body language and nonverbal communication, is claiming something, such as a gesture or formula, is absolute and applies to every situation is false and inaccurate.
What does Mehrabian think of this?
The formula was created for a specific context- when the nonverbal channel and the verbal channel are incongruent (not matching). From his book Nonverbal Communication (page 108):
"When there are inconsistencies between attitudes communicated verbally and posturally, the postural component should dominate in determining the total attitude that is inferred."
So should you still quote the 55/38/7 percentage at the next dinner party to show your nonverbal communication knowledge? Should you include an asterisk? Well, what I do when I mention the 55/38/7 numbers, I clearly state this applies to certain situations and importantly, it should not be used as a deciding factor to try and understand the situation. A proper analysis needs to occur to fully grasp what the person's current emotions are at that moment.
One way of increasing your accuracy is applying the 3 C's of Nonverbal Communication: context, clusters, and congruence. Context includes what environment the situation is taking place in, the history between the people, and other factors such as each person's role (for example- an interaction between a boss and employee).
Looking for nonverbal communication gestures in clusters prevents us from allowing a singles gesture or movement to be definitive in determining a person's state of mind or emotion. Sure, crossing your arms at your chest can be a sign of being resistant and close-minded, however, if the person's shoulders are raised and their teeth are chattering, they might just be cold!
Finally, congruence we already discussed above in regards to the formula. Are the words being spoken match the tone and the body language? After someone falls, and they verbally state they are fine, however their face is grimacing and their voice is shaky, you might want to probe a little deeper.
The 55/38/7 percentage as well as the 3 C's of Nonverbal Communication reminds us when trying to understand others, a single gesture or comment does not necessarily mean something but instead, it allows us to take note and observe more to gauge a better understanding of what is going on.
Mehrabian, A. (1972). Nonverbal Communication. New Brunswick: Aldine Transaction.