We have all heard that it is not what we say but how we say it that really counts. Some believe it is the visual messages we subconsciously send that matter. The visual signals would include the way we hold our arms, facial expressions and posture. I agree all these have a bearing on how the message we are trying to convey will be received. Some experts believe our body language is far more important than the actual words we use.

Reports can vary on the percentages of importance between visual, vocal or actual word content but there seems to be a consensus that the actual content of the words is pretty low. (One report claims it is only worth 7 percent of the impact in conveying a message. I am not so sure I believe this low number is really accurate.)

 I do believe we need to pay more attention to body language than the content of the words spoken. The vocal part of the message, according to the same experts, is considered about 38 percent; this refers to our tone and inflection in our speech patterns. They then go on to claim that the visual aspect of message sending can make up to as much as 55 percent of the message we are trying to convey to others. This refers to our body language, facial expressions and our overall demeanor. I suspect this is also body posture and how you carry yourself. How could the words that people actually say be so insignificant? I still think that what we actually say is important yet body language suggests a lot more than most of us think. 

Let the Brain Do the Work

It all started when my wife and I discussed our relationships with our respective families, friends and acquaintances. After 20 years, I agreed she was far better at reading Americans than me; while I pondered if it was simply because we Americans are just easier to read, more transparent or some other ubiquitous explanation. She then commented that conversely I was better at reading the Europeans than she was. How could that be—it seems counterintuitive? My first language is English, hers is German, so it should make sense the other way around. We ultimately decided it could be our language that actually hinders us in getting to really know people.

She noted that for her first years in America, she would routinely stop listening to group conversations, as translating is tiring work. I agree because I still struggle in Europe in translating German. It is exhausting to keep up with group conversations. After a while you just stop and give your brain a break. That is when you unconsciously sit, watch and more importantly, simply observe others. You note mannerisms, expressions and even body language. You instinctively start to form opinions about the character of these people without even thinking about it. Not based on the words they used but on visual signals and the tone of their voice.

Reading the Signals

I now suspect this was born out of the necessity to survive. Consider that before any form of mass communication and uniform language rules, we had serious communication issues. Old Europe had valleys and mountains separating groups of people, cultures and languages. This is still apparent today in Europe, as each small region tends to have its own distinct dialect. This is not merely an accent in the same language, as they have unique words just in their local area. Centuries ago, a traveler who was not able to effectively read the other person’s body language could be in for a world of hurt. Conversely, those that could read people’s visual signals did better. It is kind of a Darwin theory of evolution premise that reinforced visual message sending. In short, knowing who to really trust was likely a key component to survival. That is probably the most key element and required skill to survive and succeed in your tribe. Not being able to tell a lie from the truth might result in life or death for you and your tribe.

 This revelation made us both think and re-evaluate how we will likely deal with people in the future. Success may actually be in those percentages I initially refused to believe or trust. We all unfortunately find out that not everyone is what they purport to be. I will heed my wife’s warnings when she says, “I would not trust that person.” She tends to be right in the long run. Most shocking of all is that my wife said she is actually going to listen to me about my evaluations on Europeans. Those words were music to my ears. Can I trust her to actually do what she said? I guess I should have watched her body language when she spoke those impactful words. I wonder if she would repeat it in German. I better not push my luck.