Some strange folks believe the world is flat and that aliens abduct earthlings on a regular basis. But there are equally bizarre convictions lurking far closer to home in the self-help section of your local bookshop. A surprising number of guides to public speaking feature the work of one Albert Mehrabian, a leading psychologist of the 1970s, who, it is alleged, proved that communication is mainly nonverbal. Expounded forever after by masters of the arts of oratory and rhetoric, his study showed that the words we choose account for a mere 7% of the information conveyed and the remaining 93% of it, is communicated via body language, intonation and inflection.
The myth was born
Like much research, Mehrabian’s was seized on by headline hungry journalists more focused on sensation than on detail. And so, the myth was born, condemning the beleaguered professor to spend the rest of his career explaining that this was not his thesis at all. It it were true of course, it wouldn’t matter whether we delivered our next presentation in Swahili or Swedish, provided we employed plenty of gestures and expressive pitch changes.
So, what exactly was Mehrabian asserting? Something far more elegant and distinctly less sensational I’m afraid, which is this: What we manifest through non-verbal cues are our interpersonal relationships and how we feel about one another. The devil, as they say, is in the detail. But it’s not even that straightforward.
A table for four
What we stress in English is where the message is. In fact, this characterises our language to such an extent that we reduce and contract words that don’t contain useful information. Non-native speakers of English often arrive on these shores to find that our version of the language, what we linguists call ‘rapid connected speech’, bears no resemblance to what they’ve been taught. Take an innocuous word like ‘and’ for example. If you say it on its own, it sounds like a-n-d – but when or rather why would you ever say ‘and’ on its own?
Try saying ‘fish and chips’, ‘black and white’ or ‘you and me’ and you quickly get the picture. The same occurs with the words ‘to’ and ‘for’. You really can’t achieve much by saying them in isolation, but if you do, they sound indistinguishable from the numbers ‘two’ and ‘four’. That, however, is where the similarity ends. Try saying, “I’d like a table for four’. Do ‘for’ and ‘four’ sound the same? Of course, they don’t!
Let’s eat, Grandma!
And this stress and reduction rhythm is not merely a ‘nice to have’, it’s actually an essential feature of the language, because without it English ears and brains cannot locate the meaning in a phrase. Much has been made of the life-saving commas in “Let’s eat, Grandma!” and “I love cooking, my family and my dogs”, but you can’t hear a comma.
How do we ensure that our audience knows that our preference is not for cannibalism, but for eating ‘en-famille’? Meaning and stress are, it turns out, inextricably linked:
So, in the case of English, it’s what you say AND the way that you say it that counts. We can stretch vowel sounds into acrobatic shapes that other languages cannot hope to compete with and that’s what makes English so uniquely challenging for our foreign friends.
So, never mind about flat earthers and little green men, what’s going on every time you open your mouth is far more fascinating than any conspiracy theory you might encounter on your Facebook feed!