Non-Verbal Communication Not Really Communication

On a recent LinkedIn discussion, I stated my belief that we really only have two methods of communication as human beings: the spoken word (the communication tradition of orality) and the written word (the communication tradition of literacy).

Every medium of communication we’ve ever had—or ever will have—can be divided into one of those two categories.

Tablets from the mount or Dead Sea scrolls? Literacy. Sermon from the mount or stories around the campfire? Orality.

Newspapers and magazines? Literacy. Radio and television? Orality. Blogs, online discussion groups, Facebook and Twitter? Literacy. Podcasts and YouTube? Orality. E-mail or text to a friend? Literacy. Conversation with that same friend via Skype or over dinner? Orality.

Whether we’re trying to inform, persuade, reminisce or share a tender moment, we either say it or write it. Nothing more; nothing less.

When I posted this, someone asked: “What about non-verbal communication? Don’t you think this is a separate method of communication?”

Interesting thought. But, honestly, I don’t think so. It’s simply a subset of orality.

Imagine you’re standing with a friend and you want to communicate something. You might be able to communicate basic emotions: joy, sadness, confusion, anger.

But you wouldn’t be able to give your friend directions to the nearest washroom without pointing or gesturing in some way. Once you do that, you’re engaged in sign language, which is simply another form of orality.

In my experience, when someone puts that much faith in non-verbal communication, they have probably fallen prey to
The Mehrabian Myth, which is something I’ve often written about.

Your body language must be natural. You cannot mimic or create gestures. As Mehrabian’s research indicates, when you do that, you’re sending one message: “My words cannot be trusted.”