The Importance of Context

Enter a world where communication is rich but lacks some of the variations that are added to it by gestures, non-verbal cues and even inflections.  Mr. Smiley has entered such a world.  We forget that we interpret interactions not just with simple words, but with all the other components of interpersonal interaction.

In addition, there is one more aspect.  A key aspect.  Context.

If we heard the same phrase uttered in one tone of voice versus another, it could mean completely different things, particularly when we observe the cues of the situation.

Consider this example:  “Well, that’s just wonderful.”

A simple enough statement.  But, in two different contexts, it can mean completely different things.

A grandmother is on the phone with her young adult granddaughter, who is relating her success in finding a job that she is thrilled with.  The grandmother’s response to the news: “Well, that’s just wonderful.”  You can hear how genuinely happy she is for this girl, the heartfelt warmth.  In this scenario, the expression is one of pleasure, happiness.

A young mother has been mixing up a bowl of cupcake batter in a glass mixing bowl, in a hurry because she needs to finish the task before she leaves to pick up her son from school.  The cupcakes are for his birthday celebration at school tomorrow.  As she is furiously mixing, glancing up at the clock, the phone rings shrilly.  Irritated at the interruption, and feeling the pressure of time, she reaches for the phone.  In the process, she brushes the bowl off the counter and it proceeds to fall to the floor and shatter, spewing batter across the floor, the cabinets, and her jeans.  “Well, that’s just wonderful.”  Likely the sarcasm and frustration are literally dripping from her words as she gazes at the gooey mess around her.

Contextual information is present in every interaction and situation we observe.  It adds to the richness of our lives, information that we may not get otherwise.

When you know your coworker is going through a bad time in her personal life, you will interpret some of her frustrations as not just work related but more in the context of her overall life situation.  It allows you to be more present and authentic with her, as well as being more caring.

If you are reading Shakespeare, it is helpful to know of the time period in which it was written, the situations politically and other details.  It enhances the richness of the play as the context lends more history and details to the story.

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