Communication in the 21st Century: Is It What You Say, Not How You Say It: Vivian Ta (Transcript)

Full text of researcher Vivian Ta’s talk: Communication in the 21st Century: Is It What You Say, Not How You Say It? at TEDx KitchenerED conference. In this talk, she argues how and why verbal behaviors, rather than nonverbal behaviors, are most critical in today’s digital society.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Vivian Ta – Psychology researcher

What’s more important in communication, “What you say?” or “How you say it?”

Generally, the consensus tends to lean more towards how we say things: our body language, or our non-verbal behaviors, as social scientists call it.

And if you look online, you’ll quickly find this to be true.

Most of the attention historically and currently has been paid towards the importance of non-verbal behavior within communication, because non-verbals supply a lot of information that isn’t projected or supplied verbally.

In fact, as I was looking up examples for this talk, I even came across an article titled “What TED talks speakers teach us about presenting”. And one of the things that they focus on is the power of nonverbal. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it, or is it?

I want to challenge that perhaps what we say: our verbal behaviours are much more important than we realize. Perhaps what we say has been so much more important now than it ever has been before in history. And perhaps we’ve been focusing on the wrong aspect of communication for a while.

But first I want to step back and talk a little bit more about communication in general. One of the most important things about communication is having other people understand what you’re saying, establishing mutual understanding. After all, communicating can be quite difficult if no one can really understand each other.

And so how do people actually even develop a mutual understanding for each other in the first place?

Well, previously researchers and writers have suggested that the development of common ground understanding is largely dependent on interaction partners coming to use the same words in essentially the same way.

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However, researchers weren’t able to test this empirically in order to determine if it’s true or not, because there hadn’t been anything that could measure what they wanted to measure, which was the extent to which interaction partners use the same words in essentially the same way.

Fortunately though, in recent decades, a new measure called latent semantic similarity or LSS as they will be referring to it as, was proposed to be such measure.

And so what exactly is LSS?

So LSS is a measure that is assessed by using a program called latent semantic analysis, which is an automated statistical method that establishes the contextual meaning of any text by analyzing the relationship among the words that are used.

In other words, the LSS measure determines how similar two blocks of texts or two groups of words are to each other based on the words that are used and how those words are used in relation to other words.

So for example, if I’m talking to one of my friends about our weekend plans, the LSS measure would first take all the words that I say, compare it against all of the words that my friend says and determine the amount of shared meaning that exists between us within our conversation.

And so, as someone who’s studied social psychology and someone who is especially interested in how people come to understand each other, especially the processes and the behaviors that underlie it, my colleagues and I decided to test this measure in order to determine if it can actually be a legitimate measure of how much people understand each other.

And so in our very first study, which has been published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, we analyzed a sample of videotaped recordings. And in these recordings were a series of initial interactions between pairs of strangers who had just met for the very first time. And so they had never met before. And so they were having a conversation for the first time ever with each other.

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And so we analyzed this and we also analyzed and measured a wide variety of nonverbal and verbal behaviors that occurred within these interactions. And we found that the LSS measure was indeed a legitimate measure of how much people understood each other.

So now we have something that can empirically measure this. Great!

So next, we wanted to determine the behaviors that would significantly predict high levels of mutual understanding. In other words, what were the behaviors that were most important when you are communicating with someone and you want to establish common ground understanding?

And so in our second study, we again analyzed two completely separate samples of initial interactions that occurred between pairs of strangers again.  And then we also analyzed a wide variety of verbal and non-verbal behaviors. And we found that the only behavior that consistently predicted how much people understood each other were their verbal behaviors – the amount of talking that they engaged in and how many questions they asked each other.

All of the other behaviors like gestures or smiling, laughing, gazes, nonverbal acknowledgements, all of these nonverbal behaviors were not essential for the development of common ground understanding.

Now that doesn’t mean that nonverbal behaviors are not important in communication. They are important to when it comes to creating an emotionally pleasant and involving interaction, but they’re not important when it comes to developing mutual understanding with each other.

And what is important is what we say, the words that we use. And so the science behind this is only one reason why I argue that we should be really focusing more on what we say rather than how we say it.

The second reason and perhaps more important reason is the internet. The internet has drastically changed how we communicate with each other on a daily basis and it has done so in a very, very short amount of time.

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As most of you will probably remember the internet became publicly available in the 1990s. And up until then people primarily communicated either in person over the telephone or sent letters, to name a few.

Today, how do we primarily communicate? We send each other emails, we send each other text messages. We send each other instant messages. We comment on each other’s Facebook statuses. We tweet. If you’re on an online dating website, which is becoming increasingly popular, and if you see someone that you’re interested in, what do you do? You send them a message.

We engage in this form of communication so much every day. And it has literally allowed us to communicate with anybody on the planet, at the touch of our fingertips, whether or not that person is halfway across the world, or if that person is right next to us.

The internet and the technological advances that have resulted from it have made communication so much easier and has changed the face of communication just in general.

And the resulting different types of communication all have one thing in common: They’re all primarily text-based. They consist solely upon the words that we use, our verbal behaviors.

No one is going to know whether or not you had shifty eyes or that you were nervously twiddling your thumbs whenever you send a text message or an email or an instant message. 

Our body language — our non-verbals — don’t really matter in this type of communication that dominates our everyday lives. And yet we continue to focus on it.

And again, I don’t believe that non-verbal behaviors are not important. They are. But if we are to live in a society where we primarily engage in this type of communication where this type of communication is so largely intertwined with our sense of self, our wellbeing and our livelihood, we should adapt accordingly.

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