Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things


Writing about Island Employment’s travails this week, I had reason to visit the website of the Nova Scotia Career Development Association (NSCDA) and found myself perusing their catalog of training courses for their employees — or “practitioners” as they’re called.

I ended up down a rather deep rabbit hole — one of no importance to my story, but of interest in and of itself.

NSCDA logo and home page images

Among the courses offered employment services “practitioners” is one called Communications Skills. The course description reads:

Improve your communication skills to deepen your connections to others, build greater trust and respect and improve teamwork, problem solving, and your overall social and emotional health.

The “learning opportunity” associated with the course is explained as:

  • Understand 4 Social Styles of Communication
  • Identify own social style and ways to engage in meaningful communication with other’s social styles
  • Learn different means of communication using Albert Mehrabian’s Communication Theory
  • Use Active Listening as a tool to enhance communication

“Albert Mehrabian” was my White Rabbit — I didn’t recognize the name, so looked him up and discovered (as you may already know) that he is renowned for his 1967 research into non-verbal communication.

Mehrabian (and colleagues) produced what is apparently the “best-known set of numbers within the discipline,” namely, the idea that the total meaning in a message is “7 percent verbal, 38 percent vocal, and 55 percent facial.”

My “research” took me immediately to a 2007 paper by David Lapakko, a professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Augsburg College in Minnesota, titled: “Communication is 93% Nonverbal: An Urban Legend Proliferates.”

Lapakko marvels at how widespread Mehrabian’s numbers have become — found “in our textbooks in public speaking, interpersonal communication, small group communication, persuasion, organizational communication, and intercultural communication” — despite being based on “two 1967 studies with serious methodological limitations.”

Lapakko goes into some detail about these “methodological limitations,” but what really interested me was that he had communicated with Mehrabian who “himself believes his research has often been misinterpreted and mispresented.”

As he stated, ‘My findings are often misquoted . .. Clearly, it is absurd to imply or suggest that the verbal portion of all communication constitutes only 7% of the message. Suppose I want to tell you that the eraser you are looking for is in the second right-hand drawer of my desk in my third floor office. How could anyone contend that the verbal part of this message is only 7% of the message?’

(It’s like contending communication is a perpetual game of charades.)

Lapakko says:

Therefore, for all of these reasons, I must take the presumptive stance that the Mehrabian research has been widely misinterpreted, and because of its limitations, any broad-based conclusions about the nature of communication simply cannot be derived from it.

Lapakko first quoted Mehrabian in 1997, in a paper debunking the 93% claim, but even Mehrabian’s own reservations about it did nothing to stop the theory’s dissemination, leaving Lapakko to write, rather mournfully, in 2007:

Unfortunately, knowing that the Mehrabian research has serious deficiencies and limitations has not stopped the rest of the world from picking up these wonderfully precise numbers.

It’s now over 20 years since Lapakko’s initial paper and Mehrabian’s numbers are apparently still alive and well — and living right here in Nova Scotia.

(You should see the face I’m making right now.)


Bet on Annette

In Episode 8 of her seeming interminable podcast series, Bet On Me, Annette Verschuren speaks with Erika Shea, CEO and president of New Dawn Enterprises.

Erika Shea

Erika Shea

I learned that Shea was born in Alberta, raised in Nova Scotia and Ontario, went to St. Mary’s University in Halifax and Carleton in Ottawa, has a bachelor’s degree in political science and an interdisciplinary masters in Canadian Studies. I learned that Annette Verschuren once gave a speech entitled, “Get Along or Go Along” at a New Dawn-sponsored conference and that CB Voices, the “scary and phenomenal” sisterhood (her words) Verschuren launched in 2015 is clearly the vehicle through which she plans to take control of the island if not the entire planet.

I’m kidding…sort of.

Look at the membership of that organization, which hasn’t posted any new screeds on its website of late but still, apparently, hosts “spectacular” parties (Verschuren references one in this podcast). It includes the mayor of the CBRM, the MLA for Cape Breton Centre-Whitney Pier, Shea herself, the head of the Verschuren Centre and the chief of staff to the premier of Nova Scotia.

I have such conflicted feelings about this, I’m not going to try and formulate an opinion — I need time to think about it. But if you want a definite opinion on something, here’s one for you: Verschuren’s neo-liberal conviction that all the best things happening in the world these days are being driven by business is rock-solid nonsense.

Especially since she’s basing this on the way the world has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. She says:

Even in business today, I’m seeing a big difference in terms of, yes, profits are important but other stakeholders are important too, and community is really becoming critically important.

Word salad aside (“profits” are a “stakeholder?”) where, across this bleak pandemic landscape is she seeing this? Not among pharmaceutical companies for whom nothing — certainly not saving human lives — is more important than profits; not among Canada’s top CEOs, who saw their total compensation in 2020 reach its second-highest level in the country’s history; not at major supermarket chains like Sobeys, which have been hauling in healthy profits on the backs of front-line workers whose “hero pay” was cancelled long ago (Sobeys says it will bring it back but only if the province goes into “lockdown” again).

Verschuren also thinks business is driving us toward a zero-emission future — in a province where our private-sector electricity provider has won the right to operate coal-fired power plants until 2030.

And just to be clear: Verschuren views New Dawn primarily as a business, albeit one with social goals. But Shea’s description of how the Eltuek Arts Centre (which I will probably never stop calling the Convent, just out of habit) carried tenants through the pandemic, acknowledging the risk they’d taken in signing three-year commercial leases and the financial hit their businesses had taken, is not an example of New Dawn behaving like a business — a business would have turfed everyone out in favor of new tenants who could pay — it’s an example of New Dawn NOT behaving like a business.

What really irked me, though, was the failure, by both Verschuren and Shea, to acknowledge that New Dawn is heavily dependent on government funding — the renovation of the former Convent could never have happened without federal and provincial funding and concessions, on things like parking, from the municipality.

New Dawn bought the Radar Base site, on which it is developing a solar-powered housing project, from the County of Cape Breton for $1 (and then had to battle to get the Department of National Defense to take responsibility for a multi-million clean-up of the site, which turned out to have been contaminated by leaking oil tanks).

The whole point of a recent presentation by Shea to CBRM council was that the construction of affordable housing is possible only with significant government assistance.

I don’t have a problem with New Dawn receiving public funding because it is a non-profit that does actually seem concerned about the community — I would say it viewed community as “critically important” long before the onset of the pandemic.

But Verschuren’s notion that New Dawn is on “a mission to create a culture of self-reliance” is bizarre, given a) the organization’s above-noted dependence on government and b) the fact that relying on government for things like housing and support for the arts is FINE.

The episode contains some of the logrolling in our time I’ve come to expect — and perhaps even look forward to — from this podcast. Verschuren to Shea;

“You are someone that I have bet on all my life.” (Not actually possible, given their age difference, but okay.)

You are “one of the great visionary leaders in Cape Breton” and while it was “hard to follow Rankin MacSween, he’s an amazing guy,” there is “no one more perfect than you and that’s the truth.”

In return, Shea lauds Verschuren for her “moral and financial support” of New Dawn and notes how important it is that someone of her “caliber” and “intellect” believes in the organization.

I have five more episodes of this podcast to get through after which, even if Verschuren renews herself for a second season, I am out of there.


Note: This article has been updated to correct a typo — the original said Invest Nova Scotia had put $14 million into the project, it should have said $1.4 million, along with (along with $5.5 million from Canadian Heritage and $3.2 million from NS Communities, Culture, and Heritage. The Spectator apologizes for the mistake but stands by its point — that’s still significant government funding!)