Why Context Matters

Why Context Matters - Comm Before The Storm


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.

Taking a selfie doesn't seem so bad when no one is paying attention, but context still matters.

Taking a selfie doesn’t seem so bad when no one is paying attention, but context still matters.

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.

Enhanced by Zemanta

0 responses to “Why Context Matters

  • Hi Debra; this was a solid post. the story was cute too. and your examples were right on target. but I’m a bit disappointed with you. your hubby has a new blog and you didn’t include a clickable link to it or at least I didn’t hear one. as someone who just launched a new blog of my own, i would have ben much more likely to go check him out if i had a link. otherwise, I love you and your posts are always instructive. thanks again and tai care, max http://blindstudentandteacher.blogspot.com

  • I feel that I completely overlooked the fact that the selfie took place during Mandela’s funeral. Honestly, it sets a terrible example of how a leader should behave in such a situation. I really though you tied that in well with your story of your “famous” classmates, lol. Thank you for sharing this.

  • I really love this story, but you already know I love a good story. I could just see it happening and how foolish that teacher must have felt when we realized the truth. I get that about Obama and then other activities surrounding the event. We need to remember the context of why we are there and then act accordingly. Thanks for a fun and great read. 🙂

  • valerieremymilora says:
    June 13, 2014 @ 02:11 am

    Debra you had me laughing with your story! You sneaky little girl! I can just picture you making that quick escape and leaving your poor friends stranded.. Ah context is indeed so important and your story is a reminder for us as parents to keep context in mind when we listen to our children’s recounting of an even or hear from another parent about something that happened… As for our president’s behavior at a funeral, it’s rather disappointing, regardless of what others were doing…
    By the way I took a peak at your husband’s blog.. looks great and worthy of a more thorough inspection 🙂

  • Context is very important because so many people take thing out of context. We have to look at the whole picture before passing judgement. Thanks for sharing, I love reading your post.

  • Love you story of your school days 🙂 Funeral selfies are quite the interesting phenomena to say the lease regarding context. I’m headed over to you hubby’s blog. I developed an interest in semiotics during graduate school, so I’m sure it will be a cool blog.

  • These are great of examples of the importance of context. I enjoyed your story about ninth grade. I did pop over to Paragraphic – nice design and layout! Really makes it easy to read.

  • I watched a six hour documentary last night on the West Memphis 3. I was deeply moved and disturbed by the feature and it was center stage when I fell asleep and woke this morning. Context was very important in this case. The boys were charged with the murder of other boys based largely on things taken out of context and examined under a microscope. Out of context information put these boys in prison for 18 years. My point is that I agree with you; out of context information should not be trusted. It is only when the whole picture is exposed is the truth revealed. eg Obama’s “rude” selfie”.

  • ballnchainz says:
    June 12, 2014 @ 11:10 am

    This is Jay

    Very good information. I try to talk to my kids about the context of thing and how certain situations look worst than they are when people don’t know the entire story. I tried to get them to focus on getting their information from the source and not from gossip.

  • Interesting thoughts on context. In today’s fast-paced world with so much information coming at us, snippets or information or comments are so often taken out of context. Lots to think about the bigger picture in this post and how something that is appropriate in one setting is inappropriate in another.

  • Great incidences of explaining the context. Such a coincidence that two of you class mates had names similar to famous personalities. I think the whole World was criticising the incidence of President Obama and others taking a selfie!! But as an after thought – the event was quite casual. It made taking selfie’s famous!!

  • I agree that taking things in context is a very important message and your examples drive the point home nicely, Debra. Taking things at face value, or ‘not seeing the forest for the trees’ is likely at the root of much misunderstanding and misjudgment. Sometimes we should just step back and acknowledge the many pieces of the bigger picture before we leap to a conclusion. Excellent post.

  • Lol Derbs good story on the names there. Who would have thought? And on context, very true and factual. I have many times, especially with today’s social networks, people use context in such hillarious ways. Context does matter!!

  • Hi Debra – I enjoyed the story about your two classmates – what chaos that could have caused and I really liked “My name is Diane, not Diana”. I am very guilty of not placing people of out context and have walked by many that have been quite put out when I did., especially people I had done business with. They fully expected me to recognize them and rightfully so.

  • Meredith says:
    June 11, 2014 @ 11:43 pm

    I love your take on context. Congrats to your husband, I’m headed there next. That’s a great story about Diane Ross and Michael Jackson. What are the odds? I’m curious though, with two communication experts in the family, what must your evenings at home be like? 🙂

  • Love the story about your two classmates. Honestly think Obama got too much critiism for the selfie. Am sure it was Helle, the Danish PM who took the initiative. Should he have told her off for doing so? Are you aware that in Africa people celebrate someone passing on? It’s not like in the West where we are supposed to be sad and cry.

  • sundancesocialmedia says:
    June 11, 2014 @ 09:57 am

    This is a great subject, Debra, because we often view things from our own narrow perspective and cannot see the whole picture. We make assumptions which may not be true. Food for thought. Re: the picture of the President taking the selfie at the memorial for Nelson Mandela, I think the expression of the First Lady, and what is going on around her, speaks volumes.

  • Very funny story about your classmates and a perfect example of how context does matter. As to our president…even though rude may have been rampant, that’s no reason to join. We abbreviate so much these days that we are rarely privy to the entire context.

  • Oh, snap – way too often I see the importance of context, in my work at least.

    To add another story to the pool – a couple of years ago I was in my hometown but my boyfriend decided not to join me on that trip. I went out to meet with a classmate from high school who happens also to be one of my best friends. Also, he is famous, so to speak, because it’s a small town and he has several businesses there.

    He had an errand to run so i got into his car and we went to the the hospital where he had to do something while I waited in the car. The same hospital (even ward) where my mom used to work at as a doctor for the last few decades – so naturally, the other doctors knew me. And so it happened that just while I was waiting in the car, the day shift ended and the night shift came – so all doctors working in that specific ward saw me waiting in front, not in my car, but in my friends car.

    I believe this is how rumors get started – I am sure some thought and discussed I have a new boyfriend in the face of this big shot businessmen in my hometown, while in reality it was just two good friends catching up 🙂

    I checked your husband’s blog, Debra – I interesting concept… I have always been interested in the psychology behind the design, not so much in the design itself, and his blog will cover just that, I think. Will visit again – thanks for the share 🙂

  • crystalzakrison says:
    June 11, 2014 @ 02:49 am

    People can jump to conclusions easily. I have taken people out of context. I have not really cared for someone from afar. However, later on I Become friends with them and actually like them. Things are not always what they seem. Great points! 🙂

  • What a great story, Debra! Funny how certain memories from childhood seem to be very much in the forefront of our minds, even years later. I agree, context does matter. My husband laughs at funerals because that is how he relieves the stress. On another note, once I was fixing a speaker’s necktie before he hit the stage. It must have looked like I was making a pass at him, even though it was an innocent gesture on my part for a fellow speaker to look good before speaking. Word quickly spread that I was somehow acting inappropriate – until the full story was revealed. The moral – never assume. Just makes a you-know-what our of you and me!

  • Hi Debra. Its so true that if you broaden the context sufficiently almost anything can seem silly and if you narrow it enough almost anything can seem cogent. The J C Penney episode was particularly silly as everyone else saw that that while Apple had a strong hand and a unique proposition JC Penney did not and that the everyday prices didn’t appear low to anybody. If we look closely enough at the timing of Apple’s price strategy it is reminiscent of Joe Clark’s remark that any farmer in Alberta who dug a hole and hit oil suddenly considered himself an economist. In the context of the U.S retailer environment and 10,000 inventory items enterprise,Ron Johnson was a babe in the woods so the hole he dug hit a septic tank. Penney hired the wrong Johnson … they must have confused him with Magic !

  • A man by the name of Richard Marks was in my platoon when I was in the Marines. But not that Richard Marks.

    Although, growing up I found one of my many name doubles. He played for the Greenbay Packers and I was in third grade. A friend of mine who collected cards gave me his card from his rookie year. I lost that thing so many years ago.

    But in the interest of context, when I was in schools in the Marines there was another me in a different company in the same school. One day I got a letter from home. It wasn’t till I was halfway through and my “mom” was talking about our cows that I realized the letter wasn’t for me. We have never owned cows.

  • Debra — I love the example of your two classmates. Context does matter, but sometimes something that seems out of context may not be. For example, someone may laugh during a funeral service, which is entirely out of context. But some people laugh when they are in a very tense situation. It’s pure nerves. Agree about the criticism directed at President Obama during that memorial service. He should have known better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.