Brazilians and a BBQ

As a writer, the words I select when attempting to convey a message are crucial. The way I form each sentence, add inflection and punctuation, and attempt to infuse my voice into the whole thing are my only means of communicating. And on a page, in a vacuum of space and time, all you have are these bony little words to hang on to. Between me and you, right now, words are everything. But here’s something that might blow your mind. If we were to meet on the street corner for a quick chat, research shows only seven percent of what I’m trying to communicate to you is actually getting through with spoken words. Seven percent! I could be blathering on in one of those made-up languages from Lord of the Rings, but as long as you can see and hear me, you’re going to figure out my general meaning. Let me tell you what got me thinking about this, and then more on how important the things you aren’t saying really are.

We recently hosted my brother-in-law’s parents from Brazil. They were thrilled to come to Fernie and see what all the hype was about and wanted to cook us an authentic Brazilian BBQ dinner as a thanks for introducing them to SOCO Soaps, Big Bang Bagels, and a frothy “Hit the Deck” in the sunshine. After their day of frolicking through Fernie, they showed up with armfuls of groceries, including more meat than any men’s rugby team - much less a group of regular people - should consume in one meal. One catch. They didn’t speak English. Besides hello and the odd misplaced thank you, we were stuck with Google translator and a whole lot of Portuguese. I knew this going in, so I’d prepared by getting out pots and pans, finding a Portuguese playlist, firing up the BBQ and opening a few bottles of wine. From there, I was hoping we’d stumble our way through a silent but delicious meal. 

I was right about the delicious part, but not the silence. We quickly discovered a way to point and smile, using one-syllable noises and actions that led me to get them the salt, grater, even a pressure cooker. (Try miming pressure cooker – it’s pretty fun.) By the end of the night, we were sharing laughs and hugs and somehow stories without the telling, just showing, in a magical way that includes a lot of smiling. 

How does this work? Well, when you throw those pesky words away, turns out you still have ninety-three percent of your communication skills available to you. It’s called the 7–38–55 rule, and it was developed by psychologist Albert Mehrabian in 1971. It’s since been used by everyone from car salesman to FBI hostage negotiators. The theory states that 7 percent of meaning is communicated through spoken word, 38 percent through tone of voice, and 55 percent through body language. Eye contact, smiling, touching someone on the arm, leaning in and laughing all matter way more than what you actually say. As someone who spends their days trying to choose the perfect combination of words, I found this a bit alarming at first. But upon further reflection, it fills me with hope. We are all the same. Regardless of where we come from or what language we speak, we can find a way to say “cheers” and “no more meat please” and “where’s your pressure cooker?” with a friendly smile, an enquiring tone of voice, and some really good acting. Maybe, if we stopped texting so much and started looking into each other’s eyes more, we’d find friends we didn’t know we were missing. Valeu! Cheers