You are my favorite visitor.
Absent nonverbal clues, you have no way of knowing whether I’m being sincere, sarcastic, affectionately teasing, polite in a perfunctory way, or none of the above.
As written and in isolation, “You are my favorite visitor” could mean you are my absolute favorite visitor, my least favorite visitor, that I’m just goofing around, or anything in between.
During an acting class, a teacher of mine once opened a play to a random page, held it up, and asked what this was. Student responses ranged from “a play” to “a scene from a play” to “a page in a play.”
The correct answer? Black ink.
The line “Please take a seat,” for instance, can be rendered as if to say “Please stay” or “Please leave” or as an ex post facto reprimand for a guest who has plunked himself on the sofa prior to having been invited to do so. Divorced from an actor’s delivery, “Please take a seat”—or any other line for that matter—reduces to meaningless ink on a page. Besides delivery, context figures as well: a guy who screams “STELLA!!!!” at the top of his lungs may desire his wife Stella to appear on the balcony or his wife Lucy to get him another beer. In terms of overall meaning, the words proper clock in a paltry third on the relevance meter, yet the words are all there is on a written page.
In face-to-face communication, we derive a significant portion of meaning from nonverbal clues such as tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. Calculating the precise percentage sounds tricky due to the confluence of several seemingly unquantifiable factors, but psychology professor Albert Mehrabian crunched some data and devised his 7%-38%-55% rule, which states that words account for 7%, tone of voice for 38%, and body language and facial expressions for 55% of the information we absorb during facetime interaction.
Lest his findings be misinterpreted as suggesting that all face-to-face communication is 93% nonverbal, Mr. Mehrabian cautions thus:
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 (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.
So the 7%-38%-55% rule applies primarily to statements tinged or suffused with feelings and attitudes, less so to strictly academic lectures, utterances along the lines of making or confirming appointments, or declarations which can be subjected to objective verification such as “Today is Sunday” or “The Dow dropped another ten points before closing,” where the speaker is either correct, misinformed, or lying through his fillings.
Bottom line, when it comes to conveying attitudinal information, it is the sound that makes the music. Rent asunder from delivery, statements like “I hate you” or “You suck” don’t mean much, as the subtlest smirk or mock exaggeration in tone will do a 180 on the literal—or, in the latter case, the conventionally figurative—meaning of these words in a flash. And depending on how you say it, “Have a great vacation” could mean precisely that or be code for “I hope you’ll get ripped to shreds by a great white.”
A while ago, I received this cryptic message in my Facebook inbox:
I don’t know this individual, and sans nonverbals, his message amounts to no more than a bunch of multibiguous black pixels on a screen. The same, of course, would apply if the message read “You’re wonderful” or “I love you,” statements whose meanings are equally (i.e., entirely) delivery-dependent.
Just yesterday, a blogger replied to a comment of mine:
impeccable logic, cyberquill
Again, without at least a tone of voice, I cannot glean with anything approaching certainty from these pixels whether that blogger considers my logic impeccable or grossly flawed.
By their very nature, written statements provide the words only. Ergo, not the speaker but the recipient must supply the nonverbals by essentially imagining—a process which, more often than not, occurs as a matter of subconscious reflex rather than deliberate reflection—how these words would have been delivered in a facetime situation. If a written message contains feelings and attitudes—including humor, wet or dry, or any ever so bumbling attempt at such, as opposed to, say, a legal text or a letter from an insurance company—the reader, in effect, becomes its primary author by generating up to 93% of its meaning, whereas the writer furnished as little as 7%, namely the words.
It follows that written messages are Rorschach tests of sorts, which afford a much larger window into the reader’s associative infrastructure and neurological wiring than into the mindscape of the wordsmith. Therefore, if we sustain a strong emotional reaction to the ink on the page or the pixels on the screen, we predominantly react to our own creation, i.e., we react to ourselves. Thus, when we receive a written message or comment and get a sense that the person who sent it has “issues” of one sort or another, we may indeed be confronting our own issues.
Psychology teaches that we tend to react most strongly to those qualities we detect (or believe to detect) in others which we most strongly resent about ourselves. If other people’s messiness really gets under your skin, chances are you harbor a disorganized streak that you’re having trouble coming to terms with, and it manifests in hypersensitivity to all things disorderly. If the mere mention of the names Hitler and Stalin sets your blood boiling, it likely indicates that you yourself entertain disquieting Endlösung fantasies regarding those (such as Republicans, for example) whom you regard as intransigent road blocks to realizing your vision of a Shangri-La on planet Earth. Naturally, projecting precisely such aspects of ourselves into others is particularly tempting when ninety-plus percent of their meaning is left to us determine.
Of course, we may conjecture correctly and the nonverbals we fabricate in our own heads reflect the writer’s attitude to a T.
Or they may not.
One of the main characters in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, which I referenced a few paragraphs ago, is named Blanche. Blanche DuBois. The name itself is irrelevant except it recalls to my mind a textbook example of the 7%-38%-55% rule in action:
I do not know nor have I ever conversed with a sizable plurality of the individuals on my Facebook “Friends” list. Sending and accepting friend requests and then forgetting about them is part of the MO on a social networking site—like that broiler infomercial: “You set it and forget it!” Periodically, though, I scroll through my Facebook “News Feed,” and sometimes I leave little comments on other people’s posts or status updates.
So one of the strangers on my friends list—let’s call her Maureen—posted a status update to the effect that she was “having lunch with Blanchie to celebrate Blanchie’s last day as an intern.” I figured I’d say hi, so I replied that I was sorry to hear Blanchie had been such a horrible intern that her departure gave grounds for celebration.
As happens with some frequency in consequence of my typing something into a Facebook comment window and hitting the Send button, within a few minutes I noticed my friends count had diminished by one. Oh well. Lost another friend to Ditech. But since I was in my playful mode, I took the liberty to contact Maureen and request an explanation as to her motivation for having slammed the virtual door into my face. To her credit, she promptly complied:
You’re obnoxious and mean. Simple as that.
Simple indeed, and the defendant (me) may well be both.
The question, though, is how did Maureen manage to clap together with such promptitude so comprehensive a psychological profile based on one sentence that could easily have been construed at least two different ways—bona fide obnoxion twinned with meanitude being one, and innocuous silliness being the other?
I suppose Maureen would have been equally precipitous in branding me “polite and charming” had I wished Blanchie and her a delightful lunch, yet ohne (German for sans) nonverbals, how would she have known that this ostensibly cordial comment wasn’t dripping with genuine sarcasm (i.e., that it didn’t mean “I wish Blanchie and you choke on your shrimp”) and hence signified a much higher degree of malice than my goofy comment about Blanchie being a horrible intern which, I contend, contained no malice whatsoever?
Another individual, upon unfriending me, sent me this in response to my replying to an update of hers:
You have serious issues. Why friend me and then be a jerk?
I don’t recall exactly what I had written that inspired her to dissolve our budding Facebook friendship—I think she had wished everyone a “happy Friday” and I had asked whether her wish would expire on Friday at midnight or whether I could have a happy weekend as well—but here we have a typical diagnosis of “issues” where it is difficult to tell whether she was referring to my issues or to her own as a result of having projected a certain set of nonverbals into my words even though alternative readings would have been possible, as I rarely reap such diagnoses when I deliver these kinds of comments in person. On balance, I find that people react more aggressively when I deliver them in writing, for then it is they, not I, who add the soundtrack to my words.
Art Markman, PhD, put it this way in Psychology Today:
One reason why emails can cause so much trouble, is because it is easy for people to misinterpret the tone in an email and take seriously something that was meant as a joke. In a normal conversation, it is easy to look at a speaker and get a sense of whether he meant a comment to be taken seriously, but in an email or text that information just isn’t available.
From an evolutionary perspective, of course, it makes perfect sense that we incline to err on the side of being attacked if the words on the page or screen lend themselves to multiple interpretations depending on the nonverbals we imagine to accompany those words, for back in our olden days in the African Savannah, giving others—strangers in particular—the benefit of the doubt may have resulted in our heads ending up on a stick.
Vorsicht ist die Mutter der Porzellankiste, as they say in France.
Have a beautiful day!