We are rushed, we are pressured, and we don't have time for the fine detail. Instead, too often we mentally leap to the bottom line, and in that leap we often fly past a few things that could lead us to more accurate understanding.

We may read that a dietary product provides "Up to 4 hours hunger control," but how many of us remember that "up to four hours" includes one, two and three hours as well as four?
Sometimes we even teach others on the basis of our wrong conclusion.

The simplest answer is NOT always the correct one.

How often have you read or been told that words carry only 7% of the information conveyed in communication, that 38% of the information is conveyed by tone of voice and 55% by body language? You can find this misinformation in many books and all over the internet. It has been quoted in learned papers and taught by at least one national training organization that really should know better. It is wrong, and yet it is based on some excellent research by a professor at UCLA so… how can it be wrong?

It is wrong because somebody, somewhere, over-simplified. No doubt in a hurry, or limited by a word-count limitation assigned by an editor who in turn was bound by page space, a very important piece of information about that research was omitted, not by the original researcher, Dr. Albert Mehrabian, but by someone in the subsequent reporting chain.
The fact is that Dr. Mehrabian was not researching communication in general. He was very specifically researching the communication of feelings. So when we say that 55% of the information about how someone feels is conveyed by body language, we are quite likely to be accurate. Think about it. How often can we tell how someone is feeling just by the way they move as they enter the room? The way they walk, hold their head, the droop of their shoulders, the expression on the face… oh yes, we can see Dr. Mehrabian's research as solid. That does not mean that we know anything more about that person's situation, about any information they may have received that led them to feel that way. It just means that we can have a fairly good idea about how the individual is feeling.

Yet, because someone over-simplified, misinformation is passed on around the world, and courses on body language are seen as even more essential to interpersonal success than they actually are.

Don't get me wrong – body language IS important. However, it is extremely unlikely to carry 55% of the meaning of whatever interaction you may have with someone who is reporting on what is going right or wrong with a project, or if they are training you on the policies and procedures of a business, or even discussing plans for a vacation. Body language does not convey facts unless those facts are actually feelings. (I am not counting ASL or any other sign language system as body language.)

One term for what happens when this type of mistake occurs is "overgeneralization." Someone took a specific situation and assumed that it applied in a much broader context than was correct. This happens a lot. Do we really know if research done with white male college sophomores from an Ivy League college can be generalized to group of people who are far more diverse in race , age, gender and life experience? The results may indicate a possibility, even a probability, but only after it has been replicated with a population that is far more diverse in race, age, gender and life experience can it be considered to apply to almost everyone.

Yet that, of course, is exactly what we do when we stereotype. We take an experience, or an incident, and assume that it is always going to happen in the same way based on whatever is most noticeable about what happened. We take a person who behaves in a certain way and assume that all people like that have the same behaviors. Not only do we base stereotypes on our own experience, but on what we have read or heard from others, whose knowledge may be even further removed from the truth. Anyone who talked to Dr. Mehrabian about his research would quickly have learned the truth, but the further the misinformation travelled, the more firmly wrong it was.

I once started work in a new environment in the U.S. and found myself welcomes warmly by all the staff… except one. She – I'll call her Susan – was barely civil, and would often not respond to my cheerful "Good morning." When she did she mispronounced my name often enough that it appeared to be deliberate. It took a while, but after some months she began to relax, and confessed to having been influenced by an episode in her teens. Her family spent some time in England, and after having become accustomed to American high school life she suddenly found herself in a far more highly structured English school being taught, and reprimanded, by English school teachers who did not appreciated her introduction of American ways and accent into their domain. She remembered the experience as truly horrible, and still hated the memory of her teachers, who were all middle aged women with, of course, English accents. Many years later, with my English accent still noticeable, I kicked up all youthful anger and resentment she had stored up since that time. She had taken the past situation and over-generalized it to "all" middle-aged English woman – in this case the "all" being me. Stereotyp. And, as she eventually realized, inaccurate.

Sometimes, when we over-generalize, or stereotype, it can hurt other people, as her lack of welcome hurt me. Sometimes it can be harmful to those who do it, and who act or make decisions based on inaccurate information.

In my work in addiction counseling I have met people from many different backgrounds and learned much from them. One day in the midst of a conversation that I don't remember a man  turned to me and commented,

"You know a lot more about 'the street' than you look like, don't you!"

I smiled and replied, "It occasionally gives me a thirty second advantage."

He nodded thoughtfully, "My mom always says that thirty second is enough to hang a man."

When a stereotype leads us to underestimate other people's knowledge or abilities, it can indeed be harmful to us as well as to them. A bluff may be called. An employer may pass over a potentially brilliant employee. A competitor, under-estimating the abilities of other competitors, may not train sufficiently. Serious, and maybe irrevocable mistakes may be made.

"Insufficient information" is the typical response from computers, when asked to solve a problem for which the data provided is insufficient. It is worthwhile for us to take the time, and make the effort to check on whether or not we, too, have sufficient information before we make assumptions, and even more so before we act on them. An assumption that hunger is controlled for four hours can leave us hungry, even with dangerously dropping blood sugar, long before we had planned it to happen if we assume that "up to four hours" means "four hours." It doesn't.

Author's Bio: 

Born and raised in England, Diana Gardner Robinson left school at sixteen and came to the United States in her twenties. She subsequently completed several graduate degrees in psychology and became a Certified Alcohol & Substance Abuse Counselor in New York State. While working in the addictions field she also took two years of training as a professional life coach and opened her coaching business in 1997. In addition to her coaching, she has been an addictions counselor and now teaches future addictions counselors. Her life experience has been wide, and this enables her to coach around issues of life balance and a wide range of stumbling blocks that, if we are not in balance, may trip us up or block our way. Visit her website for more information http://www.thebalancedcoach.com/