Rule of Personal Communication

Communication is everywhere. Communication is everywhere.

The 7–38–55 rule is something that has been explained over and over and over. Albert Mehrabian’s 7–38–55 Rule of Personal Communication is something that has been shared and examined and taught frequently.

At first, I was quite surprised that it is split up the way that it is. Then, I made an intentional effort to look to recognize it in others and in myself.


I said on Tuesday that one of the most important things is to determine whether something is necessary to share. Well, if it is necessary to say something unkind, this is where I believe the 7–38–55 rule comes into play.

I’m sure that most of us have seen a situation like the following:

You are shopping at the grocery store and pushing your cart through the dairy section. You notice that in front of you there is a young woman with her arms crossed facing away from you. As you get closer to the items that you need, you realize her foot is tapping and she is speaking loudly, it seems she is speaking somewhat aggressively too. Then, you notice a young child, they can’t be but 4 or 5, they look scared. Crawled up on the floor next to a broken carton of eggs. Then this happens, the child looks at you and the Mother does too, but the Mother is glaring in your direction. Her arms are still folded, her foot is still tapping loudly, what does she say?

So now I’ll break down the 7–38–55 rule. Though it is not always a perfect example, generally speaking, this is the level of importance for communication.

Words are less than 10% of communication

There are three parts to it. The first is the 7.

The 7 is 7% of personal communication. The 7 represents your diction, your word choice.

Think about someone saying thank you for buying them a drink. They can communicate that in many ways.

Someone could say thank you in an annoyed way.
Someone could say thank you in a kind way.
Someone could say thank you in a loving way.
Someone could say thank you in a sarcastic way.

Regardless, thank you is still thank you. Thank you may mean thank you if it is just the words but, you do not need to say the words “thank you” to get that message across.

Words matter, yes, just not as much as many may think.

Your tone of voice plays a larger role than you may realize

The second part of the 7–38–55 rule of personal communication is the 38. 38% of personal communication, as explained by Albert Mehrabian, is the tone of voice or inflection.

I’ll bring it back to saying thank you. If someone tells you thank you after you buy them a drink, they can communicate that in many ways.

You can say thank you and be totally monotone.
You can say thank you with a higher pitch than a typical conversation.
You can say thank you with a dry tone.
You can also say thank you with excitement.

All of this can be expressed just through your tone of voice or inflection. Someone can feel your gratitude, genuinity, annoyance, sarcasm, frustration, or whatever else it may be.

This is something that I have become much more conscious of. I have also asked people to help point this out to me to keep me accountable. There are times I seek to be kind and then because of my tone, my message is received as though I am annoyed or frustrated, which is not the case. But, that is what this is all about, it is all about learning.

What message is your body language communicating?

The third part of the 7–38–55 rule is 55. This is body language.

I love Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk a few years ago, “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are” as well as her book, “Presence”.

She talks all about the messages that your subconscious receives from your body language.

But, what messages are you sending to others? Sticking with the example of saying thank you, you can say thank you with many different types of body language. If someone tells you thank you after you buy them a drink, they can communicate that in many ways.

You can say thank you with crossed arms.
You can say thank you with a smile
You can say thank you and invite the other person for a hug
You can say thank you and roll your eyes
You can say thank you and avoid eye contact

How many different messages can be received from those different types of body language?

If you tell someone you love them but you don’t look them in the eye, are they going to believe you or think that you are being genuine? Maybe not.

Now, thinking back to the story, what do you think the mother said?

Is your first response something along the lines of, “Well… what do you think you’re looking at? This is my child and I will treat them how I like.”

Maybe. Maybe that is your assumption based on that woman’s body language.

But, what if she said, “my child wants to know which cheese is the best but I don’t know since I don’t eat dairy, can you help?”

Now, that would catch you off guard wouldn’t it? I am sure that it would. That is not what we expect someone who has shown body language like that to say to us.

So, we all know how important body language is, we just need to be aware of how OUR body language and tone of voice or inflection affects others.

There are two things I want to emphasize, the first is reading the communication of others and the second is expressing our communication appropriately and as it is intended.

Someone talked to me a few days ago about something that was on their mind. They said they felt a little bothered and uncertain. Initially, I was a little annoyed. It was late and I was in the middle of something else.

Their body language showed me that they were insecure and not comfortable. Their tone of voice expressed concern and hesitancy. Meanwhile, their words addressed those facts and the things that they said displayed their concern.

Considering all the different parts of this rule I think, are extremely important. Though, again, I would like to say that this is just a general rule and there are, of course, times when the words are more than just 7% of communication. But, I would be hesitant, at least from my own experience, to say that the order of importance or value would change in any situation.

7% of communication is your diction
38% of communication is your tone of voice and inflection
55% of communication is your body language

Body language is always the most important part of communication. Words are words, but we can change the meaning of words based on our tone and inflection, and our body language.

All in all, even if we become aware ourselves of the 7–38–55 rule, that does not mean that others are also aware and put it into practice.

“One’s first step in wisdom is to question everything — and one’s last is to come to terms with everything”
— Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

I would love to hear about anyone’s communications recently and how they have noticed different tones or body language at play.

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