woman annoyed
You might think your words are friendly and amicable, but your body language might be saying something else. For instance, crossed arms, constant foot tapping, or the biting of the lip. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Your friend’s enthusiastic thumbs up don’t reach their eyes. A colleague’s "sure" sounds like a frustrated sigh. You might even hear someone say they have no problem with you, but their fidgeting and nervous glances tell a different story. 

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Words can be deceiving. It’s the body language that can spill the truth. The Mehrabian rule of communication highlights this concept. Developed by Albert Mehrabian, a US-based psychologist in 1967, it’s also often referred to as the 7-38-55 rule, which attempts to show that in certain contexts, when it comes to conveying emotions and attitudes, verbal communication plays a smaller role than we might think.

Here’s the breakdown:

7%: Verbal Communication (the actual words you say)

38%: Vocal Communication (tone of voice, pitch, volume)

55%: Nonverbal Communication (body language, facial expressions)

What Mehrabian found:

Compare a cheerful ‘go away’ from your friend, to a rather half-hearted ‘stay, if you wish’. How do you feel about the second?

That’s what Mehrabian's research was all about. It focused on how well people judge emotions based on words, tone, and facial expressions. He found that facial expressions were the most crucial element, followed by tone of voice. Words play a much smaller role.

He also found the effects of inconsistent communication, where a particular facial expression wasn’t quite in line with the words. And so, he asserted that people would respond to body language and voice tone over verbal, or word choice. For example: Your friend tells you, “Go away!” The words are negative. Yet, they are saying it while laughing or joking.

Subtle, non-verbal cues have a profound impact in our workplace settings, considering that’s where you spend most of your day. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Probably, you will take it well and laugh with them.

And these subtle, non-verbal cues have a profound impact in our workplace settings, considering that’s where you spend most of your day.

Body language in the workplace

woman talking
When you go for a job interview, remember the first impression can be the last impression. You may sound confident, but your body language might tell another story. Image Credit: Shutterstock

She spoke confidently. She said all the right things. Yet, she kept looking at her watch, as if she had somewhere to be. Her arms were crossed; she kept tapping her foot.

Dubai-based Polly Keenes, a Canadian Human Resources Manager always carefully observes the body language of an interviewee, as she says. “There’s so much in the details. Recently, I met a very confident sounding girl for an interview, for a rather important position in the company. She spoke clearly, and with precision. Yet, she kept looking at her watch. She looked stressed, kept tapping her foot and shaking her leg. And, she was always checking her watch, as if she had somewhere to be. The room felt so charged with tension, that even I felt uneasy. These little mannerisms speak volumes, and it told me more than I needed to know about her,” she explains.

When you mirror someone else's body language, you create a sense of connection, unity and harmony by showing them that you are attentive and engaged. In other words, you build trust and the other person begins to like you...

- Greg Grytchenko, body language expert and the founder of Blue Eye Pictures

While fidgeting, foot tapping, arms crossing are just a few signs of non-verbal cues, Greg Grytchenko, a body language expert and the founder of Blue Eye Pictures, a Dubai-based photo studio, places much importance on the "microfacial expressions". adding that they can even be more heightened than postures and gestures. These microfacial expressions indicate the tiniest twitch of the mouth, the change in the expression of the eyes, the clenching of the jaw, or the biting of the lip. 

It's something he has learned from work experience, as he says. "It is the most powerful factor and it is related to psychology and behaviourism. You may hide your emotions behind curtains of postures and gestures, but you can't hide your expressions," he says. As he explains, he works on how to use such gestures, postures, micro-expressions during negotiations, sales process or just building relationships, that he refers to as syncho-mirroring. "When you mirror someone's body language, you create a sense of connection, unity, harmony by showing that you are attentive and engaged. You build trust, and they begin to like you."

The power of non-verbal cues

In many professional situations at the workplace, Elizabeth Matthew, a Dubai-based clinical psychologist, emphasises that nonverbal cues can make or break whether people believe what you say.

For instance, varied tones can exude a certain panache and power, as compared to a monotone. “Crossing your arms, sitting crouched in the chair, constantly looking in different directions, it all displays signs of nervousness, inferiority, as if you don’t trust yourself. So, how can you convince others to believe you,” she explains.

Even the strongest words can be lost if your body language contradicts them. “It can lead to disagreements. For instance, it could cost you a promotion. Or, another example is, that you are saying something amicable to your boss, but your expression is saying something else, enough for them to feel annoyed or disrespected. These little things generate misunderstandings,” she says. “And sometimes, they are hard to explain.”

Matthews gives some suggestions on how you can prioritise body language and become an effective communicator:

Eye contact and nods: Always look a person in the eye. Nod a little, to encourage more conversation. A little smile can go a long way. These are signs that you are listening to someone; you are engaged in conversation.

Note the incongruence: As the theory suggests, sometimes the words don’t match up to the non-verbal cues. As Dubai-based Emma Brain, a communications coach, explains when body language trumps words. "People tend to subconsciously do things that give the game away as it were. Refusing to make eye contact, fidgeting, all tells that someone is not being truthful. Or they’re trying to hide something that’s upsetting them," she says.

So, pay attention to details and see if someone is deliberately trying to mislead you, or not telling you something. And in your case, match your tone to your words. Enthusiastic words deserve an enthusiastic tone.

The power of your voice: Mix it up, a little. Don’t stick to a monotone. When you are making pitches, or presenting something, inflect words. Make sure you are articulate, and concise, and that people are listening to what you’re saying.

Meet in person: In many situations, conversations through text messages and written emails can be misconstrued. You can never accurately assess the tone and the mood of a person with the written form of communication. So, try meeting them in person, to get a better sense of the situation.

People talking
Sometimes, it's just better to talk in person, rather than leaving it in written form of communication.

Ask for feedback: Request the people around you to always be honest with you about your patterns of behaviour if they can be misconstrued. You can avoid such mannerisms in the future.

People comforting each other
When you're making conversation with someone, little nods, or smiles can go a long way. It shows you are actively engaged. Image Credit: Shutterstock

What are the limitations of the rule?

Psychologists, including Mehrabian himself, acknowledged the limitations of the rule as a simplification and caution against applying it universally. The specific percentages were derived from a specific lab study, in a controlled environment that was focused on feelings transmitted through audio recordings.

As Brain explains, "People very often get the 7-38-55 confused, as we’re not talking about them as separate things, but how they work together to give a full picture of how someone is communicating and how others perceive it. For example let’s take a look at a couple of old sayings, ‘It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it!’, and ‘actions speak louder than words’," she says. To give an example, someone could say that they like a specific thing, but their tone of voice and body language says something else. All these things have to align, to make someone genuine and authentic," she says. 

Humans are far more complex than this, she summarises. "As a general rule, when it comes to emotional intelligence, people need to work on understanding how they communicate and also their ability to read other people. The Mehrabian theory should really only be used as a starting example, before going more in-depth into how people communicate with one another," she says.

The rule provides crucial insights, not a rigid formula, explains Caitlyn Bryce, an American Abu Dhabi-based clinical psychologist. It need not apply in both formal as well as informal contexts. Sometimes, during a business presentation, your words are everything. You need to be clear, concise, and organised. Of course, good eye contact and confident body language is a bonus, but people would be paying attention to your cues.

“However, in the case of a job interview, the first impression is the last impression. Your resume has anyway said everything: But your body language, tone of voice, how you talk to the managers, is crucial,” says Bryce.

Context is key. One situation where it applies is when you’re seeking feedback from a manager, she explains. They’re telling you that all is well, but they seem particularly dissatisfied. The furrowed brow, frown, or constant fidgeting can say a lot more than they let on. 

Words can hold powerful meaning if instructions are being given, for example in an emergency situation you’d need to follow exactly what you’re being told to do.

Essentially as Bryce says, the 7-38-55 rule can come into play when you are talking to someone in person, or you notice an incongruence between their words and non-verbal cues, or you’re trying to understand a person who is expressing their feelings. What the rule does do is emphasise the congruence in communication.

While it might not apply everywhere; the rule is still a helpful guideline. “People always notice smiles and frowns. You can either be warm and inviting or shut someone off with an eyeroll or a distracted expression,” adds Bryce.