An urban legend: face-to-face communication is the best vehicle for communication

Many people believe that the lack of non-verbal cues makes online communication inherently inferior to face-to-face communication. Albert Mehrabian, a UCLA professor, completed research in 1967 showing the significance of non-verbal cues in communications. He concluded, in part, “The combined effect of simultaneous verbal, vocal and facial attitude communications is a weighted sum of their independent effects — with the coefficients of .07, .38, and .55, respectively.” (Albert Mehrabian and Susan R. Ferris, “Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels.” Journal of Consulting Psychology 31 (1967): 248-252. ) Out of context, this implies that in face-to-face conversation, 38% of communication is inflection and tone of voice, 55% is facial expression, and only 7% is based on what you actually say.

This statistic has grown into a very widely quoted and oft-misunderstood urban legend. Many communication skills teachers and image consultants misuse this data to indicate that your intonation, speaking style, body language, and other non-verbal methods of communication overpower your actual words. As a result, many people are concerned that online communication is much more difficult because body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions cannot today be effectively conveyed over the internet.

Not true. Mehrabian’s study only addressed the very narrow situation in which a listener is analyzing a speaker’s general attitude towards that listener (positive, negative, or neutral). Also, in his experiments the parties had no prior acquaintance; they had no context for their discussion. As Mehrabian himself has said explicitly, these statistics are not relevant except in the very narrow confines of a similar situation.

The conventional wisdom that face-to-face interactions allows more trust-building also makes us more vulnerable to false appearances. We may be easily duped by a nice suit, a firm handshake, and direct eye contact.

Pablo met Jonathan at a business networking event for Princeton alumni. Tall, handsome, and well-dressed, Jonathan looked like the very picture of a respectable businessperson. Pablo was favorably impressed.

When Pablo came home, he did a quick web search on Jonathan. The very first result that he turned up was an Administrative Proceeding by the Securities and Exchange Commission against Jonathan for violation of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. In his future interactions with Jonathan, Pablo was careful to keep the information he learned in mind.

In online dating, people are frequently concerned about misrepresentation, because almost everyone in online dating sites is using a pseudonym. However, when building business relationships online, most people use their real name and real company. As a result, it is much easier to double-check the background of someone you meet.

If you suspect someone of misrepresentation, just check alternative sources of information. For example, try calling their corporate switchboard and reviewing their corporate website. A more subtle method is to check their domain name registration. Let us say you are investigating a startup company, like LacunaInc.com. Go to WhoIs.net and type in “LacunaInc.com”. You can see who owns that domain name. The address and phone number there are an alternative way of verifying that a business really exists, and where that business is really located.

Before doing business with any individual over the internet, we recommend doing an extensive search on both their name and their business name on an internet search engine, as well as running a literature search on them (e.g., with Lexis/Nexis). If the list of search results is too large to review them all, be sure not to just start on the first page of results and work your way forward—start at the back and check some random pages in the middle. This is where you are more likely to find any less-than-favorable information. F——Company.com is probably the most useful website for finding negative information. (The F—– stands for a common vulgarity.) Ed. note: F’dCompany is a highly biased source and not always reliable source of information. But if you’re looking for dirt, that’s one place to find it. Take what you read there with a grain of salt, though.

The internet puts information about people at your fingertips before and during your interaction with them. The public information about them can give you even more useful insight into their motives than non-verbal cues, such as facial expression and tone of voice.