How Much of Language Do We Recognize?

In 1971, Albert Mehrabian published a book Silent Messages, in which he discussed his research on non-verbal communication by salespeople. He concluded that prospects based their assessments of credibility on factors other than the words the salesperson spoke—the prospects studied assigned 55 percent of their weight to the speaker’s body language and another 38 percent to the tone and music of their voice. They assigned only 7 percent of their credibility assessment to the salesperson’s actual words.

A Google search quickly indicates that the prevailing view of this assessment is somewhere around “total horseshit”.    A more lengthy Google search indicates there’s no prevailing consensus on even what measurement standard is appropriate for a quantitative standard for “perception”, let alone “understanding”.

Subjectively, though, this is easy to try out.  Watch a foreign language movie without subtitles, and you’ll immediately get a strong sense.  I watched Lion.  The gist is that a five-year old falls asleep on a train and ends up stranded in Calcutta, and adult adoptee (Dev Patel) tries to find his family.  The movie is structured in roughly chronological order, and I watched the early India scenes with the five-year-old in Hindi and Bengali.  [I admit, I totally had to look that up.  Not only do I not recognize either language, they’re not aurally distinct enough to this Western ear for me to notice without subtitles that I ought to be switching dictionaries]

My short analysis: between tone, facial expressions, recognition of repeated phrases, and recognizing social interactions, I didn’t miss even a nuance of plot-relevant communication without the benefit of English.  I even could have given a sloppy but accurate translation of every scene, except little Saroo telling his sketchy would-be adopter that his Mom “carries rocks” for a living.  I reviewed the first 35 minutes again with subtitles to confirm my suspicion: at least in movie-making, the specifics of language are only costumes hung on the structure of human communication.  Details are extremely handy, but are only the inker to the cartoonist.

I’ve had the real-life equivalent as well.  On a vacation in Mexico, my very-smart daughter was our expert in Spanish.  While having an organic grammar and vocabulary reference (and why not, roaming data in Mexico is expensive), our communications go-to was an improvised evaluation of “what’s the interest of the other party” and “what do we want?”  Simply triaging what the interaction was about was at least half way there, without formal language of any kind.  Is this an ordinary transaction?  Great, the price is probably set and we just need to make our desires understood:  “one Big Mac, please”.  Is this a negotiation?  Even better, understanding market dynamics is international: “Okay, we’ll negotiate a great price for our gondola, but we understand you can’t put our new friends on the same boat without screwing over your fellow sellers”.  Eazy Peazy.

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