The Mehrabian myth, non-verbal communication, and live chat software

Misunderstanding, miscommunication, misinterpretation. These three ‘mis’ words can wreak untold customer service havoc – causing crossed wires and a cocktail of confusion.

And unfortunately, they’re particularly problematic when it comes to online customer service conversations.

With digital communication channels like live chat software, customers and companies have the wall of a screen between them.

Non-verbal communication – those vocal cues and body language indicators that are so key in face to face interactions – are out of the question.

And this is where the ‘Mehrabian model’ comes into play. The Mehrabian model is the commonly spouted concept that 93% of our understanding comes through non-verbal communication.

But if words are only worth 7% of our communication, what does this mean for live chat conversations?

Non-verbal communication and the Mehrabian model

The Mehrabian model comes from a prominent psychology study of 1967. Carried out by Albert Mehrabian at UCLA, it focuses on the importance of non-verbal communication when conveying emotions.

The study examines the three critical tools humans use to communicate with each other, and concludes by assigning a percentage of their importance in communicating emotion:

          1. Words – 7%

          2. Tone of voice – 38%

          3. Facial cues – 55%

As you can see, the results suggest that facial cues are the most important aspect of communication, while words play a minimal part in our understanding.

Simply put: it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it… right?


The birth of a myth

The Mehrabian model is more of a Mehrabian myth. The belief that words count as little as 7% towards our understanding of communication is simply not true.

While physical cues are certainly important, they only play a part of the overall communication picture.

Think of it this way: if tone and facial expression conveyed 93% of meaning in a conversation, we would have no need to learn foreign languages. Calls would be obsolete, emails would be pointless, digital service desks would be in disarray, and you’d even struggle to understand this blog post.  

So, how have these non-verbal communication notions become so pervasive?


The confusion circling the Mehrabian model centres on the fact that the study never related to the communication of information. Rather, it was about communicating feelings and emotions.

What Mehrabian’s study did show us is that when the tonal and facial cues don’t match the words of someone communicating their feelings, we always believe the non-verbal.

For example, you ask your spouse whether he or she is upset, and they reply ‘no’. However, they do so with a sulky tone and a grumpy expression. While the word used is ‘no’, non-verbal communication tells you that the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.


So, what has this got to with your customer service via live chat? Simply put, it’s imperative that you don’t make the common mistake of misinterpreting the Mehrabian model.

Don’t go believing that words aren’t what’s important in your service delivery. When it comes to digital communication channels like chat, words are pretty much all you have.

There can be no warm smiles, no empathetic nods, and no assured eye contact in your online service efforts. In fact, aside from the odd image, your agents only have the keyboard in front of them to convey information and emotion.

If you don’t word your messages properly, they could easily end up being misinterpreted by customers.

The Mehrabian model – the concept that 93% of our understanding comes through non-verbal communication – is a myth. And the myth can prove damaging to online #customerservice. Click To Tweet


When non-verbal communication is a no-go, it’s important to take every step to avoid miscommunication. But how can you ensure that your customer service agents are giving the correct message?

Emojis in live chat can help convey some of the facial cues that Mehrabian proved to be so important. But stuffing your chat sessions with emojis won’t stand in for non-verbal communication alone, and could irritate your customers if used incorrectly or frivolously.

Emojis can help convey some of the facial cues in online interactions

Similarly, establishing a clear and consistent tone goes a long way in conveying mood and meaning. With tonal cues being 38% of our method for understanding emotion, striking the right tone in your online chats is essential. However, that’s easier said than done. Once more, it all comes down to choosing your words carefully.

Choosing the right words

When stress is high, the customer will be more disposed to seeing the negative in your messages. It’s not possible to rely on non-verbal communication, but you can still promote positive sentiments in your customer service chats.

Ensure that your support team always use positive words and give customers active support, while avoiding any negative terms.

Instead of saying: “I don’t know”, say, “That’s a good question, let me find out.” It’s more positive, and shows that the agent is giving active support in following up the customer’s query.

“Can’t”, “won’t”, and “don’t” are all words that should be blacklisted. These terms (and those like them) create a negative tone and suggest to the customer that the agent doesn’t want to help them.

Similarly, the word “just” can easily make your message sound dismissive or patronising to struggling customers, and should be discarded from chat messages.

#CX tip: Avoid using words like "just" and "simply" in online chats to customers. They can have a demeaning or patronising effect. Click To Tweet

Harnessing technology

When using live chat software, there are also some handy technical ways to get around the lack of non-verbal communication. We’ve already touched on emojis, but you can also try using more revealing visuals such as GIFs or even video chat.

Video chat lets customers and agents pick up on, and respond to, vocal cues and facial expression

To guide your agents that step further, you could make scripted canned responses available. This can be a great way to ensure that every customer gets the same enthusiastic response, even when your agent has been asked that question 100 times already. Because they’re scripted, you know the wordings are perfect, and you reduce the risk of the three ‘mis’ words.

Better still, you can use features such as sentiment analysis to quickly ascertain customer mood and respond appropriately.

The WhosOn chat mood feature offers visual indicators of customer feelings in real-time

With web chat, you can even use message previews to see what the customer is typing before they hit ‘enter’. This gives you an insight into the customer’s frame of mind that no other service channel could offer. (And all without any non-verbal communication cues.)

With the right technology and training, you can avoid misunderstanding, miscommunication and misinterpretation altogether.

The Mehrabian myth

When it comes to your customer service delivery, the Mehrabian model should not serve as a guideline on how to communicate. The study’s notion that words are a lesser aspect of communication is a massive misconception. Believing so will damage your service efforts.

Yes, non-verbal communication will always be important, but in an increasingly online world, the typed word is the modus operandi.

So, are you ready to get typing to your website visitors without falling victim to the three ‘mis’ words? Start your free 30-day trial of WhosOn today.

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