• Paul Rutherford


Updated: Jun 10

It's that time of year, when that level of stress is felt on both sides of the sales counter.

Trudging from shop to shop, the only thing that keeps me sane is reflecting on interpersonal behaviour - mine, the Shop Assistants', and everyone else.

Hence I've been testing Mehrabian's theory about verbal and non-verbal communication.

Scene 1 - The Bookshop. The Assistant stands in front of doors, opened under the stairs. It might be the entrance to Narnia.

I've been a customer here for a long time, but not noticed this door before. It covers a folding metal screen, so I wonder in turn what's behind that.

Is it a lead-lined repository, preventing the next Dan Brown volume escaping?

Mind-reading, the Assistant says, "It's a lift to the basement, although..."

She is interrupted by scraping, groaning, screaming sounds from behind the screen;

"...it always sounds like it's coming from the bowels of the earth."

She smiles, shrugs and mouths 'Sorry' to me and anyone else whose teeth are being set on edge.

A beat, and then she says: "I think the lift mechanism is actually older than the building."

Her Verbal signal prompts laughter, and an awkward moment passes. Her good humour means that I spend more time - and money - than I had planned.

Scene 2 - The Chemist. More than a pharmacy, the shop sells health and beauty; a de facto High Street stop for any man with a wife, a daughter and two sons' partners who need Xmas pampering.

But the Sales Assistant seems to have forgotten that I need pampering too. Not beard trimming or Grecian 2000 colouring; just acknowledgment that I'm there. Shopping.

Unaided, I find the perfume that's on my gift list (for others, not for me), and take it to the counter. She extends her hand for the package while looking out of the window.

Christmas lights are obviously so much more interesting than a human being.

After the product is scanned, she says two numbers - the price - with a Vocal tone that makes Apple Siri and Amazon Echo sound like Greek sirens.

Perhaps the retail chain was already testing in-store robots?

She holds out her free hand, presumably for my credit card. I proffer it, and she taps - yes, taps - the card reading machine with her talons. She shoots me a withering look, says "PIN", and continues looking out of the window.

I give her the benefit of the doubt; she'd having a really bad day.

Generously, she wants to share it with everyone else.

Scene 3 - The Bike Store. Final visit of the day, to collect a bicycle I've only viewed on YouTube and ordered on-line. Toby (as per his badge) obviously knows this when I give him my order number, and he skips to the workshop behind the counter.

"Before you pay, you want to see it first, don't you?" he calls over his shoulder.

He pushes the bike onto the sales floor, and before I can say anything, he's adjusting the alignment of the handlebars and the front wheel.

Or rather, he's adjusting the adjustments.

Toby steps back, holding the bike at arms length, closes one eye, and with the other looks at the handlebars and front forks.

He grips the wheel between his knees and shifts the handlebars again, maybe 2 or 3 millimeters. Steps back. Looks again at his engineering, then at me:

"What do you think?" he says,moving to the side of the bike. He gestures me to inspect from the front. Squinting, I say it looks fine.

"Are you sure?" he says."When you take the bike out, if it isn't quite right, do bring it back. I'm sure you can do it yourself, but I'd feel much better if we compete the set-up properly."

Frankly, he may as well said "Amo, Amas, Amat" or "I don't think Hartlepool FC will get promotion this year" - in that moment, the words didn't matter.

It was the Visuals that helped. His careful attention when bringing the bike out; the check, check and triple-check of the front wheel; the way he holds the bike, as much display as prevention of damange.

This may have been the 2nd or the 42nd bike he dispatched today - but without Verbals, he let me know that my purchase really mattered.

Lack of Alignment. Prof. Albert Mehrabian of UCLA spent decades researching human communication, specifically the impact of words, tone of voice and body language.

Bicycle wheels and handlebars can be aligned, but not always Mehrabian's Verbal - Vocal - Visual elements.

So it's time to 'fess up about my narration: While I'm 100% certain about the Bike Store episode, and 90% in the Bookshop, the Chemist accuracy is 50%, at best.

I don't recall much of what was or wasn't said, hence the Assistant's dialogue written here is so spartan.

What I do remember are the physical cues - the out-stretched arm, the distracted attention, the screen tapping. They're as clear as the shop window.

Evidence that Mehrabian's core conclusion stands up, even in non-emotive situations:

If words disagree with the tone of voice and nonverbal behaviour, people tend to believe the tonality and nonverbal behaviour.

Perhaps political Post-Truth isn't so new after all?

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#impact #words #people

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