Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Word and the Nonverbal

It's been over 35 years since I took my first, introductory course on Communication, taught by Jack Barwind, in the first semester of my freshman year at Cornell University (and all the rest, you might say, is history, after a fashion).  That course introduced me to many key ideas and theorists, including general semantics, general systems theory, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, cognitive dissonance theory, Aristotle's rhetoric, Paul Watzlawick, Daniel Boorstin, Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innis, Jacques Ellul, and much more.

One of the topics covered was nonverbal communication, and it was then that I was first introduced to the "fact" that 93% of all communication is nonverbal.  I put "fact" in quotation marks in this instance because that particular fact is in dispute, and that dispute is the subject of this blog.  But in fact, all facts are at best tentative, and technically are not necessarily true--a statement of fact is a descriptive statement (also known as a proposition) that is subject to verification or refutation.  If it's specific, for example if I say it is raining at Fordham University's Rose Hill campus in the Bronx right now (say, 10 AM on February 18, 2010), it's possible to check it out and determine whether the statement is true.  If it's general, for example, if I say that whenever dark clouds gather, rain will follow, we are incapable of checking every possible instance that fits the generalization, past, present, and future, and so we can never prove it true, but according to Karl Popper we can prove it false by finding just one example that doesn't fit (although even that possibility is subject to falsification).

The facts about facts is one of the topics covered in general semantics, and it's also the case that in general semantics the term nonverbal is often used to refer to perception, what we abstract out of events in spacetime (aka reality) through our senses, before applying verbal names to our perceptions and categorizing them with labels.  This usage goes back to a time before the concept of nonverbal communication became commonplace (some at first wrote it as non-verbal).

But in the field of communication, drawing on behavioral studies from researchers trained in psychology, nonverbal communication has been established as an area of study since the 60s.  Defined negatively, by what it is not rather than what it is, nonverbal communication refers to all forms of communicative behavior except for our words.  Nonverbal communication is typically divided into a number of subfields, including

  • 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)

This list could be expanded, and the territory could be, and has been, divided up in different ways, but this is the way I used to present it when I taught introductory communication classes, and my goal here is to simply provide a sense of the kinds of phenomena that are covered under this heading. 

I should note that apart from studying these aspects of nonverbal communication separately, they can and have been studied in combination with each other, and in their interaction with verbal communication.  One of the practical applications of nonverbal communication is in the detection of deception, lying in other words, and the expert in the field, who I recall hearing about back in my freshman year, is Paul Ekman.  I highly recommend his book Telling Lies.  And if you've seen, or heard of the Fox network TV show Lie to Me, the lead character, Cal Lightman, is based on Professor Ekman.

One of the pioneers in nonverbal communication, and intercultural communication, Edward T. Hall, is considered foundational in the field of media ecology, his fellow anthropologist, Ray Birdwhistell, was also on the original media ecology reading list.  Both are considered part of the Palo Alto Group, a loose coalition of scholars associated with Gregory Bateson, following up on the groundbreaking work of Norbert Wiener (who coined the term cybernetics), which also included Paul Watzlawick, and Erving Goffman.  I previously posted a tribute to Hall, who passed away last summer (see Hall of Fame)--Hall coined the term proxemics, and while he didn't coin the corresponding term chronemics, he pioneered the study of the human use of time as well as space.  Birdwhistell coined the term kinesics.  Ekman's work, I should add, was also recommended for anyone interested in this area back when Neil Postman and his colleagues had their media ecology doctoral program, and I continue to recommend him to this day.

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:

Now, I have no problem with the point that these folks at CreativityWorks, which apparently consists of two British communication professionals, Martin Shovel and Martha Leyton, are making.  I've seen more than enough presentations by folks, including communication scholars, who seem to think that a snazzy PowerPoint presentation is more important than any content that they have to present, or that it can mask their apparent lack of content.  

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.

1 comment:

Mark Bowden said...

This is the fullest journey around this issue that I’ve come across in a blog. Nicely done Lance. Just to add a little more: I think it is fair to take into account that Mehrabian was talking about how subjects read another person's feelings or intention (not as the Creativity Work’s video says “meaning”). His experiments were not about understanding of technical content. I think the spirit of Mehrabian's findings are that people often trust the feelings they think they see above what a verbal dialogue may be suggesting. It has always interested me that Creativity Works chose to disseminate their myth-buster message with a very visual video! Yet ultimately according to their argument the nonverbal evangelists overestimate the power of this. Here's what I think about it in a video I made in Valencia a week ago: