An urban myth (also known as an urban legend) is a story or idea which is widely circulated and believed by many in society but which has little or no basis in objective fact.
Many such myths may originally have had their basis in some sort of fact, but have often been so distorted by something akin to Chinese whispers that they end up bearing little relationship to the original story; others have been simply invented out of whole cloth.
The "urban" in urban legend or myth does not imply that they only relate to towns; it merely serves to distinguish such stories from traditional legends. Consequently a more accurate term might be "modern myth".
Some urban myths
Around 90% of communication is non-verbal
It is often claimed that around 90% of human communication is non-verbal. This frequently asserted concept has no basis in common sense or science.
If 90% of communication (and according to some sources 93%) is non-verbal, then words would seem to be pretty nearly unnecessary. But a moment's thought will convince us that - apart from expressing simple commands like "come here" or sending emotional signals - any complex idea simply has to be expressed in words. The fact that we can understand podcasts or the radio; the fact that we can read books; the fact that we need to learn foreign languages in order to converse easily with speakers of those languages all clearly show that it is words which carry the most meaning and not non-verbal signals.
This particular myth springs from the work of Albert Mehrabian who was interested in the emotional content of communication. However he most certainly never suggested that 90% of all communication was non-verbal and was actually only interested in one particular aspect of communication. Mehrabian's famous study refers to "the relative importance of words vs. nonverbal cues" and he came up with the equation:
- Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking
This was "derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike)." "Liking" here refers to how much we "like" the speaker.
He quite clearly states that "unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable." The sometimes-quoted 93% figure presumably comes from a simplistic adding of the 38% to the 55% which is then expanded to include "all communication" instead of limiting it to communications about feelings. It is also of note that the 38% "vocal liking" presumably refers to tone of voice; not something that everyone would automatically associate with non-verbal communication.
English spelling is irregular
An oft-repeated myth – by both teachers and students – is that English spelling has no rules, is chaotic, at best irregular and so on.
However, as David Crystal points out, there are only around 400 everyday words with totally irregular spelling – and it is precisely the fact that they are so frequently encountered that is the origin of the myth. One particular computer analysis of 17,000 words showed that 84% were spelled according to a regular pattern – and only 3% were so irregular that they have to be learned by heart.
RP is the predominant form of British English
Many people, especially those of an older generation living in the UK, and possibly ex-patriots, still hold on dearly to the belief that Received Pronunciation is the predominant accent in Great Britain. In fact, only around two percent of Britons, and more specifically, mainly those living in England, speak with the RP accent in its purest form, and almost certainly a much smaller percentage of English-language teachers have this accent.
We only use 10% of our brains
This frequently repeated statement has no basis in either logic or neuroscience.
- The human brain consumes a very large proportion of the energy used by a human being and it is also responsible for most of the difficulty in childbirth. It is highly unlikely that evolution would have conserved such a large, expensive organ if only 10% of it were used.
- Damage to any part of the brain causes severe injury and frequently death. If 90% of it were unused that most injuries would occur in the 90% "unused" section. This clearly does not happen.
Studies of humans in brain scanners have conclusively shown that this is not true. While not all the brain is used all the time, activity is shunted between areas when and where it is needed. Furthermore, large parts of the brain are concerned with activities like keeping the heart beating and the lungs working. The 90% unused portion has simply never been discovered and has no scientific basis.
- Debunking and history
- Mehrabian, Albert Silent Messages
- Crystal, David The English Language Penguin ISBN 0-14-100396-0
- Learning: Language & Literature: Sounds Familiar?: Case studies: Received Pronunciation British Library.
- Crystal, David The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language Page 365. "It is still the standard accent of the Royal Family, Parliament, the Church of England, the High court and other national institutions; but less than 3% of the British people speak it in a pure form now." ISBN 0 521 59655 6
- Snopes on 10%