By Udeet Datta
The Theory: The Three V’s of Communication
Also referred to as the “7-38-55 rule”, coaches and trainers quote the research conducted by Albert Mehrabian PhD that postulates that communications consists of 7% verbal, 38% vocal (inflection, tone, etc), and 55% visual (body language) content. It is hypothesized that when there is a disparity between something that is said, and how we say it, people generally take the vocal and visual components of our communication as the bulk of the information.
The Verdict: False
What does the research say?
To begin with, we advise to take caution when referring to “rules” that quote such precise percentages. Often, it is impossible to state with total conviction that “only 7% of communication is verbal”. In relation to the “7-38-55 Rule” we discovered a major generalization from reviewing a couple of highly focused studies.
To note though, the rule is based on two studies, Decoding of inconsistent communications1 and Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels2. In the first study, a singular word is spoken with a range of tonalities and participants were instructed to guess the meaning behind the meaning of said word. The result would thus confirm whether the tone, or the word itself, were more important.
In the second study, the participants were asked to listen to a recording of a lady saying the single word in varying tones. The participants were then shown photographs of female faces with varying emotions, and were asked to guess the emotions demonstrated within the recorded voices, the photos and the two combined.
Key limitations of the studies include:
- An extremely artificial context that does not apply accurately to actual human interactions.
- The 7-38-55 figures resulting from inappropriately combined results of the two studies conducted.
- The studies only relating to communications about feelings and attitudes, not communication more broadly. Mehrabian himself notes this on his website.3
- The second study only involving women as the subjects.
With the above
limitations in mind, there are some useful pointers to draw from the studies.
The first is that it is important to keep context in mind. If our words are
ambiguous or unclear, then people might depend more on vocal tone or body
language to interpret the meaning we are trying to covey. Also, the studies
serve as a useful reminder that we do draw additional information from
non-verbal communication. While there is no hard and fast number on the amount
– which can be affected by things like method of communication – we should be careful
to consider that our tones, body language, and words are taken as a package
when people are interpreting what we are saying.
 Mehrabian, A., & Wiener, M. (1967). Decoding of inconsistent communications. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 6(1), 109-114.
 Mehrabian, A., & Ferris, S. R. (1967). Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 31(3), 248-252.