- Kinesics (more popularly known as body language, although calling it a "language" is considered a misnomer, this is all about body movements, including gestures, posture, facial expressions, and eye gaze)
- Haptics (the use of touch)
- Proxemics (the use of space, including the distances between us, use of furniture, interior design, architecture, even city planning)
- Chronemics (the use of time)
- Paralanguage (tone of voice and other vocal characteristics and sounds that we make other than our words)
- Object language (it includes clothing, even hairstyle, and any physical object whose display or use communicates something, such as a wedding ring, or a fancy car used as a status symbol)
Another pioneer in nonverbal research who figured prominently in the field of communication (but not in media ecology) is Albert Mehrabian. And certainly one of his claims to fame is the fact that most textbook discussions of nonverbal communication begin with the fact that 93% of all communication is nonverbal, a fact that I remember from my freshman communication class, a fact that originates with research conduced by Mehrabian.
So, now, this past summer, there was a video that came to my attention, circulated by some of the public relations people I'm in touch with on Twitter and other social media, that claims to bust the Mehrabian myth. And I've been meaning to put up a post about it, so here it is:
But I do find the video overly dramatic, in that I never felt that the "Mehrabian myth" really dominated people's thinking all that much. It just struck me as a way to make the point that nonverbal communication plays an important role in interaction, and that something that we tend not to pay attention to at all is in fact something that we ought to pay some attention to. As an undergraduate, I didn't think much of the 93% figure one way or another, except insofar as it might be the answer to a question on a test. As a graduate student and professor, I treated it as a metaphor, a way of saying that "a lot" of our communication is nonverbal, noting that the use of a statistic was an example of scientism, trying to sound scientific in order to make the claim more persuasive than it would otherwise be.
I mean, how can you measure how much communication occurs in any given situation. Sure, you can set up operational definitions and conduct research, but communication is, in my view, a qualitative phenomenon that cannot be quantified. And that is even more true for meaning, whatever I. A. Richards's well intentioned efforts to apply scientific method to literary study in the early 20th century. I just never took the figure of 93% seriously, and I'm surprised that anyone else did, although I guess I shouldn't be.
A related analogy is that of the tip of the iceberg, the point being that the communication that we are aware of is just the tip of the iceberg, the majority of our communication going on below the level of our awareness. The point being made is that human communication is subtle and pervasive, understanding communication is not obvious, even though we engage in communication constantly, and that's why we need to study the topic. A further analogy could be made to the psychoanalytic notion of the unconscious mind, which nonverbal communication is largely analogous to. You might say that 93% of mental activity is unconscious, and that would be consistent with a Freudian view, and perhaps also line up fairly well with research in neuroscience. And again, the point really is that we are unconscious in regard to the much of our communication behavior, and we could become aware of more of it than we otherwise are.
In any event, as a graduate student I also eventually learned that, while the scientistic "fact" of 93% was generally accepted by communication theorists, whose social/behavioral science approach dominated the northeast region of the United States, which is where I did all of my studies, scholars in the related area of rhetorical criticism, who were strongest in the south and midwest, objected vehemently to the inclusion of nonverbal behavior under the heading of communication. Coming from a tradition of speech and rhetoric, they believed that words were the only true concern for our field, that other forms of behavior should be left to the psychologists, that nonverbal expression typically occurred without conscious purpose and therefore was not part of their humanistic focus. I found this line of thinking quite interesting, even if I did not agree with it.
The significance of nonverbal communication, though, would be in its role as metacommunication, to use Watzlawick's term, communication about communication, communication that tells us how to interpret the content (which is mostly verbal) and also establishes and maintains how we relate to one another. The same words mean very different things if my tone of voice and facial expression indicate that I am angry, or sad, or calm, or sarcastic, or asking a question as opposed to making an authoritative statement.
Essentially, it is difficult if not impossible to establish effective communication unless we first establish some kind of relationship, and at least have an intuitive understanding of its nature. On a somewhat different but related note, if you want to see if a television comedian is really funny or not, turn off the sound. If you watch, say, Seinfeld that way, you can see how the facial expressions, gestures, and actions of Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer are still extremely humorous. This also accounts for the great success that Monty Python's Flying Circus enjoyed in the United States. American viewers of the British sketch show did not get any of the topical references, and we couldn't understand what the hell they were saying for much of the time, but their behavior and voices were (and continue to be), simply stated, hilarious.
The Mehrabian myth about nonverbal communication only makes sense when you include an understanding of metacommunication. To use a verbal example, if I call you a jerk, that's communication, that's content. If I then say, I'm just kidding, that's a verbal form of metacommunication, telling you something about how to interpret the content, and also about how we relate to each other (on a friendly basis). If I just said I'm just kidding,though, without the content, it would have no meaning, it only works when it modifies a content-level message. This is the point that the video makes when it shows you the cartoon guy talking without hearing his words.
But we should also recall that animals communicate entirely through nonverbal communication. If a strange dog growls at you and bares his teeth, there are no words, but I think you get the message. Babies also communicate in this way. When a baby cries, we know that he or she wants something, and then we proceed to see if it's milk, or a diaper change, or just some company.
This all relates, in media ecology terms, to McLuhan's saying that the medium is the message. Animals and babies communicate through the medium of nonverbal communication, and so do we as adults. The medium of language is also the content of speech, and writing (McLuhan noted that the content of a medium includes another medium), the medium of spoken language is the content of our bodies (produced by the human body), and in this sense our words are powerfully influenced by the nonverbal.
The technologizing of the word means that other nonverbal factors play a part as well, such as the choice of writing system, use of spaces between words, line breaks, paragraphing, punctuation marks, capitalization, handwriting, typeface and font, type of writing surface, other physical characteristics of the print medium, and other display, transmission, and storage characteristics of the electronic medium. This aspect of the nonverbal goes far beyond the issue of snazzy PowerPoints, or dramatic delivery.
And that brings me back to the point made by CreativityWorks, and I want to conclude by saying that they are absolutely right, content counts, words are our most important form of communication. The medium is the message does not mean that we should ignore content, and as Neil Postman has made clear, words and language, as a medium, can be characterized as content-centered, in fact. So, bravo to Mr. Shovel and Ms. Leyton, I wish you the best of success with your consulting, and I add my endorsement 100% to your message, but only 93% to your nonverbals.