Context is King

“Britain and America are two great nations divided by a common language.” 

Although the origins of this lil’ quip are still open for spirited debate, we can all agree that it’s spot on accurate.

I first discovered this truth as a bright-eyed 70’s American kid watching British TV programs on PBS. I remember following the plot lines with ease, but then being thrown off track by their use of a single preposition.

For example, Brits say they are “in” the toilet. Obviously, we Yanks wonder why anyone would want to be in the toilet?!

What we call the restroom/bathroom, they call the lavatory or toilet. And so, in this context, they describe the space by its chief object or function: “Where are you, James?”, “I’m in the toilet!”, he exclaimed.

And this is why I now see that it’s context and not content that is king in communication. In fact, the content is somewhat irrelevant without understanding the context or frame of use.

After living 20+ years in the UK, I’ve compiled quite a list of these locutive oddities. Here a few of my faves for your amusement:

Britspeak: “What I wouldn’t give for a splash of cock-a-leekie!”
Yankian: “I’d love a bowl of Chicken & Leek Soup!”

Britspeak: “I’m just popping out for a fag.”
Yankian: “I’m going outside for a cigarette.”

Britspeak: “I love Spotted Dick after tea.”
Yankian reactive: No thanks, I’ll pass!

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Context can be complex and layered; including culture, language, audience, presentation, timing, location and sometimes even cost.

A woman is chatting with her friend… OK.
On her cell… OK.
During a movie… Hmmm OK.
In the audience, at the theater… NOT OK EVER!

Misreading or ignoring the context can impact even the most pedestrian communication between two people:

Steve: I’M ON MY WAY HOME NOW!
Jane: Are You OK, is something wrong?

Steve: NO.
Jane: So, why are you yelling at me?

Steve: HUH?
Jane: YOU’RE USING ALL CAPS AND AN EXCLAMATION MARKS!!!

Steve: lol. AllCaps lock was on. Soz. 🙂
Jane: OK. SEE YA SHORTLY!!!

Here the context (medium, style, brevity, etc.) lead to a misunderstanding in Steve’s condition, not his intended action. And this sort of thing happens to all of us, every day.

What would the impact be on our relationships at work, home, and community if we were to stop treating content as king and paused to consider the wider story shared thru it’s context? Great communication takes great effort. And our “smart tech” only seems to make it harder rather than easier to achieve.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been putting my ‘Context is King’ theory into practice. The results are in and compelling: I have had less stress. I have pissed fewer people off and have been offended less. I have been more productive and have helped more peoples. AND, I HAVE LOST 2.5LBS! (ALLCAPS AND PUNCTUATION INTENDED!)

So, join me. Let’s create a movement that doesn’t judge books just by their covers, people by just their words/actions and honors the context (or frame) as king in our efforts to connect with others. WORD!

— — —

Want some Rocket time? Let’s chat.

6 Comments

    • It’s a process Matthew, and it starts with being present and exercising the power of observation without judgment. We can hop on a call to discuss in more detail, but for now… The next time you feel yourself react to a piece of information, observe when, where, how and what’s going on surrounding the content. You’re at a ballgame with some friends. Your team is struggling but somehow finds a way to win in the final seconds. In a moment of sheer elation, relief, and celebration, your friend embraces you warmly and tightly. You join in and embrace him back. This is the first time that you have ever embraced each other beyond a handshake. In that moment, you feel perhaps a little awkward but also (somehow) understand that what you’re sharing is more than just seats at a game. It’s a special moment in time that you co-created. That “somehow” is the context surrounding the game and it’s the acceptance of the wider context that ENABLES us to experience the moment in a very special way. This is a small example of the power of context. It takes some practice to give context the attention it deserves. However, when we do, we are all richer for it. TBC…

  • Very interesting. Never really thought about it this way, but found out that so much is true even in this country, Northern, Southern, New Englander vs Texan and so on…that is one of them main reasons I ask questions, but sometimes with frustration.

    • Asking Qs is brilliant. People sometimes get uncomfortable cuz we’re not used to that kind of interplay. But I LOVE when people ask questions as it shows they care! Thanks for caring enough to make the effort to understand more than just what you’re hearing on a first take. If we all asked more questions, communication would be more fluid and useful in our pursuit of further, higher, faster, stronger… Keep flying. Keep dreaming. And keep asking the questions that help elevate the every day to the extraordinary.

  • Loved this message, Rocket! You are so right. It’s amazing how a lack of context is the perfect ingredient for misunderstanding. And, by the way, it’ll take all the self-control this Yankee can muster not to snicker if I hear that phrase about Spotted Dick when I visit in Great Britain. 🙂

    • Thanks Sarah. The more I live this, the better things get – FOR REAL! Keep shining bright like the sun. Rocket.

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