Why Context Matters
When I was in the ninth grade I was wandering the halls of my high school with three friends. Everyone else was in class, but we had been working on an assignment with a teacher that ran overtime. We should have been heading straight for our next class but instead we were taking a little detour and enjoying the freedom of roaming the halls while they were quiet. We must have been louder than we thought because the door to one of the classrooms suddenly opened and a teacher from one of the older grades stuck his head out.
Being quick thinkers, or maybe more attuned to trouble, David Matthews and I headed for the closest stairwell door. We were slipping through it just as the teacher started calling out to us to “come back here”.
We played deaf and while David and I were making our escape, our friends Diane and Michael were caught and brought into the classroom. The teacher, who was later to become one of my favorites, had a sense of humor and began to quiz Michael and Diane about their tour of the school. As their faces grew redder, the class snickered at their discomfort. Just at the point when they thought he might torture them for the rest of the period came the question they had been dreading. What are your names?
Diane and Michael looked at each other mortified. Had they been with me or with David it wouldn’t have been so bad, but the two of them alone, well let’s just say it was an awkward combination. At their continued silence, the teacher prompted them again to give their names. Reluctantly Diane told him her name was Diane, Diane Ross. There was a moment of silence before the giggles started. Being a blue-eyed blond, Diane wasn’t remotely trying to be funny. The teacher eyed her suspiciously and then turned to Michael. Can you guess what his last name was? Would you believe that, Michael Jackson and Diane Ross had been caught running in the hall?
Now Mr. Caldwell was a teacher with a sense of humor, but he really needed them to give him their names, their real names. Needless to say they were in the principle’s office before the disbelieving teacher, now looking a little sheepish, was finally convinced that the real names of the two blue-eyed children he’d caught were Michael Jackson and Diane Ross.
I laughed hysterically when they recounted the story to me, but what I think is really funny is that Diane kept saying, “It’s Diane Ross, not Diana” as if that should have made all the difference in the world.
On a good day their names were often cause for pause, in the context of getting caught together by a teacher, well that stretches the imagination. Which brings me to my point, context matters. Things that normally seem logical, acceptable or natural can become inconsiderate, stupid and even thoughtless when the context changes.
Consider President Obama taking a “selfie” with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. Normally that might seem cute. President Obama taking a selfie during a memorial service with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, well that’s just rude. The context makes the activity seem outrageous, unless you broaden your view and look at the activity happening around them, people chatting, talking on their cell phones, looking at their messages and suddenly you realize… there was epidemic of rude happening and that was just one aspect.
In the retail world, “Every day low prices” is a great idea. Everyday low prices that mean there will be no more sales in a store that has built it’s reputation on deep discount sales…well that’s just silly. Yet JC penny did just that in 2012. Their then, new CEO, Ron Johnson fresh from a successful tenure at Apple thought he could bring the same approach to the popular retailer that had worked so well at Apple. Rather than inspire customer loyalty the approach sent customers to other stores and share prices diving from $43 to $30 a share. Mr. Johnson is no longer with JC Penny.
On a final note on context, getting my blog out on time is important to me, so posting late two weeks in row is not in my plan. Posting late for two weeks in a row is perfectly acceptable if it means celebrating with my husband the launch of his new blog. If you’re curious, head over to paragraphic.ca. It’s a great read on communication design theory…really, it’s more engaging than that sounds.