By Amanda Simays
If a Snapple iced tea cap tells me that average humans eat eight spiders in their sleep, I can roll my eyes and move on. But it’s harder to dismiss a statistic that I’ve had drilled into me during three separate job-related trainings, through speakers, handouts, quizzes, and public speaking videos.
I’m talking about the 7-38-55 rule, the one that states that 7% of communication is the actual words we use, 38% of communication is the tone we use, and 55% of communication is our body language. And I just couldn’t believe it.
I’ve lived through enough misconstrued text messages and emails to attest to the fact that tone and body language play a vital role in communication. But accounting for 38 and 55%? Really?
My hang-up over this statistic connects to my writing. I sprinkle details about tone and body language into my dialogue, but for large chunks I rely solely on the quoted words to deliver my message. If this 7-38-55 statistic were true, it had some scary implications. Theoretically, the dialogue I wrote often communicated only 7% of what I meant.
The more I thought about it, the more ridiculous that seemed. Did the 7-38-55 rule mean that writers should spend 93% of dialogue text space describing tone and body language? Or did it just mean that with every single statement a character spoke, I needed to illustrate the tone and the body language so the reader could understand what I meant?
According to the way my trainings presented the 7-38-55 theory, readers would only get 7% of what I intended if I wrote:
“I am so fed up with your attitude!” Jane said.
Add some body language for almost two-thirds of the gist (62%):
“I am so fed up with your attitude!” Jane said, stomping her feet.
Then all I would need to do is throw in a helpful adverb to acknowledge the tone, and then the readers get 100% of the message:
“I am so fed up with your attitude!” Jane said angrily, stomping her feet.
Ohhhh….now they get the point.
The 7-38-55 rule bugged me enough to do some research, and I found several websites exposing the “7-38-55 myth”…a frequently misquoted statistic. The 7-38-55 rule originated with an experiment conducted by psychology professor Albert Mehrabian, and the numerical conclusion only relates when you’re forming a like-dislike attitude of the speaker, not whether you understand the message. Bottom line: no official scientific study ever claimed that the words you use comprise only 7% of the information you communicate.
I like to partially blame residual effects of being brainwashed by that statistic for times when I don’t trust the words on the page to stand on their own, overusing adverbs, obtrusive speaker attributions, or clichéd body language. On the other hand, there is a kernel of truth buried in the 7-38-55 rule—the fact that I can’t rely completely on the quoted words to portray meaning. I still have to remember to visualize how my characters act, what faces they make, how their voices sound, and what they think about while they speak.
Finding the balance isn’t easy, and it’s something I’m working on. But I’m relieved to know that I can count on the words I use in dialogue for more than 7% of the legwork.