The 7-38-55 rule: Why face-to-face contact is key

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By Philip Adcock

Words represent just 7% of human communication related to feelings and attitudes, tone of voice accounts for 38%, and the remaining 55% comes from nonverbal sources, such as body language and facial expressions. Think about that for a second. The English language has over one million words, and we’ve created complex rules to pronounce and use them, but we barely use the spoken word when communicating about our emotions.

Text messages (excluding emoticons and emoji), e-mails, memos, and letters are limited forms of communication because they convey only words. Unless you’re a very good writer, intended tone or emphasis is lacking. Facial expressions are similarly absent. Talking on the phone can convey words and the way they’re said, but it can’t incorporate the messaging revealed in facial expressions, such as rolling your eyes or smirking. Obviously, these methods are convenient – otherwise we wouldn’t use them – but they do leave something to be desired.

We’re also pretty poor practitioners of English when it comes to describing things. If I asked you to point out the face of a friend in a group picture, you could do so in a fraction of a second. But if I asked you to describe the elements of that friend’s face so I could pick her out, sight unseen, you’d have difficulty completing the task. In fact, unless she had a distinguishing visible feature such as a birthmark, facial piercing, or purple hair, you might not be able to complete the task at all.

Communicating at eork

Videophones and teleconferencing are great new forms of communication but they, too, fall short as mediums of communication because facial expressions can change in a heartbeat, and video typically consists of no more than 25 frames, or still images, per second. Video misses many of the expressions on a person’s face because minute changes of expression often fall between those frames. Also, because of the data compression used, there’s usually a lag between the video and audio segments, which can cause emotional dissonance between what you’re seeing and what you’re hearing.

So when you have a heartfelt discussion with someone, do it in person. Face-to-face communication can be intimidating, but emotions usually are more persuasive than cognitive reason. If you want to communicate your feelings along with your words – which in important situations you do – you’ll need to do so in person.

Face-to-face contacts helps sales

Salespeople know it’s easy to send out millions of letters and e-mails to potential customers, but that’s what’s called a spray-and-pray technique. Spending the same amount of time and effort on developing ways to get in front of the ideal customer is a much better way to undertake outreach. If you work in an industry that has regular conferences or trade shoes, visit the exhibitors’ booths to rub shoulders with other visitors, perhaps share a coffee, and ask attendees if they’re available for a meeting later. That approach has a far greater emotional impact than any other means of communication.

Communicating face-to-face creates a much more personable and engaging encounter. Each party can pick up on the mood of the other and figure out what each person’s attitude toward the conversation is before deciding whether to delve into deeper detail, change the topic, or terminate the discussion entirely. Even if major cultural differences exist between individuals – such as an extreme age gap or a language barrier – the parties can still have a fruitful meeting because face-to-face interactions are universal. A smile is a smile in every age range and every language. Eye contact, facial expressions, and body language all offer additional means of communicating that you can’t get in an e-mail or letter.

In short, if you have something meaningful to say, something with feeling or attitude, do it in person if you can and remember the 7-38-55 rule.

Phillip Adcock, pictured above,  is a commercial psychologist and author of Master Your Brain: Training your Mind for Success in Life.