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The Learning Curve

The 7-38-55 rule: Debunking the golden ratio of conversation

If words are really only 7% of communication, then why would anyone need to learn a foreign language?
Close-up of a person's beard and glasses on the right side with numbers "7", "30", and "65" shown in varying typographical styles across the center, subtly referencing the 7-38-55 rule. The background is abstract with dark and light tones.
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Key Takeaways
  • The 7-38-55 rule claims that the vast majority of a conversation’s meaning is communicated through tone of voice and body language.
  • However, the psychologist who coined this ratio had something different in mind.
  • Words, nonverbal cues, the environment, and even the history of the speakers all play important roles in communication.
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Sometimes the best thing in life is a simple rule that promises to solve a complex problem. Bonus points if the problem concerns human behavior, and the rule sports a catchy, easy-to-remember number.

Perhaps a few of these sound familiar?

  • The 10,000-hour rule. It takes 10,000 hours to master a skill.
  • The 21-day habit loop. It takes 21 days to form a new habit.
  • The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. There are 16 personality types.
  • The 80-20 rule. 80% of results stem from 20% of causes.
  • The 50-40-10 rule. 50% of happiness is genetic; the other 50% comes from choices and life circumstances.

In each case, a modicum of research gave a scientific spit shine to an otherwise casual observation. Yes, it takes time and dedication to master a skill, but there’s nothing magical about the 10,000-hour mark. Yes, genetics play a role in happiness, but our choices and circumstances also alter our genes. And yes, people have different personalities, but there’s little valid and reliable data to suggest everyone will fit neatly into one of 16 boxes. 

That brings us to the 7-38-55 rule. This one claims that only 7% of a conversation’s meaning is found in the words. The remaining 93% comes from the speaker’s tone of voice and body language (38% and 55%, respectively). It’s a neat and tidy formula, one that promises to let you cut through the verbal fluff and peer at what someone is actually telling you — or even hiding from you. The reality is, of course, much more complicated, but to understand why, we need to go back to the original research.

Formulating the 7-38-55 rule

The 7-38-55 ratio was coined by psychologist Albert Mehrabian, who, in the late 1960s, performed two studies that would serve as its foundation.

In his first study, Mehrabian wanted to determine if listeners detected emotional cadence more through words or intonation. He asked 30 women participants to listen to words spoken in different tones of voice (positive, neutral, or negative). Sometimes the words and tones matched up, such as saying “thanks” in a positive voice. Sometimes they were incongruous, such as saying “thanks” in a negative voice. He found that participants were better at detecting the emotional cadence in the intonation.

His second study was similar except this time 37 women participants were given a photograph of a person’s face with different expressions (like, neutral, or dislike). The participants would hear a word spoken aloud while looking at a photo, and they had to determine the emotion. Again, sometimes the intonations and facial expressions matched up, other times not. This time, Mehrabian found the participants were better at detecting the emotional cadence in facial expressions.

Combining these results, Mehrabian devised the 7-38-55 ratio as a shorthand for the different values participants placed on verbal and nonverbal emotional cues. He later referenced the ratio in his book Silent Messages (1971), and it’s through that book that the rule connected with a popular audience before taking on a life of its own.

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As you may have noticed, Mehrabian’s research has its shortcomings. It focused on an artificial situation conducted in a laboratory with small sample sizes of only women participants. The studies never considered body language other than facial expressions. No follow-up studies looked at the 7-38-55 ratio in other environments or with a different cohort. And, perhaps most critically for a rule touted as the key to unlocking a communication superpower, no actual conversations took place.

“Mehrabian’s research has been widely misinterpreted, and because of its limitations, any broad-based conclusions about the nature of communication simply cannot be derived from it,” David Lapakko, a communications professor at Augsburg University, writes in his review of the 7-38-55 rule.

None of which is to say that Mehrabian’s research is wrong or useless. It neatly demonstrates how sensitive we are to the feelings of others — especially when those emotions contradict what the person is saying. Such communication is critical to building and maintaining relationships. It also allows for language’s more playful qualities, such as comedy and sarcasm, to emerge.

However, nothing in Mehrabian’s research suggests the 7-38-55 ratio can be applied to communication as a whole. Unfortunately, popular interpretations of his research have largely learned the wrong lessons. It doesn’t matter what you say, only how you say it. Don’t listen to what people say, listen to the hidden message in their cough or crossed arms. All misleading lessons at best.

Even Mehrabian has argued that his research has been widely misrepresented and tried to set the record straight. As he wrote on his website: “Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes […]. Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.” [Emphasis ours.]

Just think about it

Unfortunately for Mehrabian, the 7-38-55 rule has grown into an intellectual urban legend. And just like the other “rules” listed above, with each retelling in self-help books, business articles, and keynote addresses, it gained further credence and lodged itself deeper in our popular imaginations.

This would normally mean that any attempt to debunk the 7-38-55 rule would fall prey to Brandolini’s law — which states that the amount of energy necessary to refute BS is an order of magnitude larger than the energy needed to produce it. But in this case, a simple thought experiment will do.

Imagine that you’re listening to a lecture. It can be on any subject you’d like: music, philosophy, space travel, the political aftermath of Attila the Hun’s invasion of Europe. Listener’s choice. Now imagine that same lecture delivered through a series of coos, grunts, gestures, and winks. Would you say you grasped 93% of the nuances concerning Roman and Hun diplomacy circa 450 AD? Probably not.

In a similar vein, if words were really only 7% of communication, then why would anybody need to learn a foreign language? You should be able to navigate any foreign culture handily with nods, meek smiles, and the occasional chest bump. But as anyone who has traveled internationally can tell you, a good translation dictionary clues you into more than 7% of a person’s meaning. It’s vital without an intimate grasp of a language, including its words.

Advertisement for x-ray spex with instructions and illustrations demonstrating its use, claiming to allow users to see bones in their hand.
The 7-38-55 rule is the conversational equivalent of X-ray glasses. It promises to allow you to see through any conversation, but those promises are flimsy on closer inspection. (Credit: ORAU)

Rules of affective engagement

All of which leads to a simple, if slightly unsatisfying, takeaway: Verbal and nonverbal aspects of communication are important, and trying to quantify the relative importance of such qualitative experiences is kind of silly. It makes for an eye-catching headline, sure. But the ascribed numbers will often say more about a researcher’s methodology than any real-time chat you have with another person.

In fact, while we’ve been discussing communication as a three-way split between words, tone, and body language, the truth runs deeper. According to psychiatrist Jeff Thompson, to be better conversationalists, we need to pay attention to much more than the 7-38-55 ratio.

For instance, all conversations take place in a context. This includes things like the environment, the roles of the speakers, as well as their history and relationships — all of which provide vital information for any communication.

Communication cues also come to us in clusters. Communication gurus often sell the idea that reading simple cues can let you see through a person’s deceptive words to get at the truth. If a person crosses their arms, they are hiding something. If they don’t make eye contact, they are lying. Basically conversational X-ray specs (just remember to include return postage with your mail-in coupon).

But is that person crossing their arms because they are hiding something or is it cold in the room? Are they not making eye contact because they are lying or simply shy or distracted? Because cues come in clusters, we can’t give outsized importance to a single one. We need to consider the tone, facial expressions, and other body language signals — and yes, the words spoken — of any conversation holistically.

And then there’s convergence: Do the words match the nonverbal signals we’re picking up? This one gets to the original purpose of the 7-38-55 theory, but even here, it’s just one of the many cues we need to pick up on to effectively communicate every day.

“[W]hen trying to understand others, a single gesture or comment does not necessarily mean something. Instead, these theories allow us to take note and observe more to get a better understanding of what is going on,” Thompson writes.

It’s nice to think that science and psychology can offer us precise formulas for solving life’s complex problems, but the truth is that such rules are false comforts. It takes hard work to master a skill, form a habit, and be happy in life. Similarly, it takes curiosity, empathy, perceptivity, and emotional intelligence to converse with others and create meaningful connections.

There’s no easy number to manage that, but maybe there’s also comfort to be found in knowing that you aren’t beholden to some prescribed formula. You can make your conversations your own.


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