“Information is now both content and context.” A passing comment made by my mentor in 1999, has since stuck with me and changed the way I think and listen. It was as prescient as Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 comment, “the medium is the message.”
To date, the importance and pervasiveness of context remains a mystery. What is it? How can we discern and create it? The subject of context—defining, distinguishing, and examining its application—is worth exploring.
A good way to start is to differentiate content from context.
- Content, from the Latin contensum (“held together”), is the words or ideas that make up a piece. It is the events, actions, or conditions that occur in a setting.
- Context, from the Latin contextilis (“woven together”), is the setting in which a phrase or word is used. It is the setting (broadly speaking) in which an event or action occurs.
One can infer content from its context, but not vice versa.
Take the word “hot.” This word can describe the heat of an object, the temperature of an environment, or a spice level, as in hot sauce. It can also imply a physical quality, as in “That guy’s acting is hot,” or connote a standard, such as “That person looks hot.”
The meaning of “hot” is unclear until we use it in a sentence. Even then, it might take a few more sentences to understand the context.
That car is hot.
That car is hot. It is very trendy.
That car is hot. It is very trendy. But because of how it was obtained, I will not be caught driving it.
Here, it isn’t until the last round of sentences that we can discern the context for “hot” as stolen. In this case, the meaning is inferred. So, then, how pervasive is context?
Culture, history, and situations all alter our viewpoints and perspectives.
Layers of Context
Context gives meaning to our existence. It functions as a cognitive lens through which we can listen for interpretations of our world, others, and ourselves. It highlights some aspects, dims other aspects, and blanks out yet other aspects.
Discerning context (whether historical, situational, or temporal) helps us express our views, enables greater understanding, reveals our interpretations, shapes our choices, and compels action or inaction.
- Context as situational, such as physical structures, culture, conditions, policies, or practices. Situations are events that happen, and they can also shape events. When I hear somebody speak on a train, in a church, or in a lecture hall, each of these settings carries contextual associations that inform the meaning of what I hear and how it’s heard. I may also hear something in the middle of the night differently than in the middle of the day.
- Context as informational/symbolic: Pattern recognition, economic or trending data, or interactions between symbols (signs, emblems, images, figures, etc.) such as religious, cultural, or historical all shape identities, perceptions, and observation. Items such as the result of medical exams or the answer to a marriage proposal can be both content (answer) and context (future).
- Context as a mode of communication: The medium is the message. The mode of communication is critical: analog or digital, screen size, character count, symbolic expression, mobility, video, social media, etc. all affect content and shape narratives.
- Context as a viewpoint: Details about yourself, character, life-changing events, perspectives, intentions, fears, threats, social identity, worldviews, and frames of reference all matter. A politician walking away from a reporter asking an uncomfortable question reveals more about the politico than the reporter and can become its own story.
- Context as temporality: The future is the context for the present, as distinguished from our past. Said more precisely, the future a person is living in is, for that person, the context for life in the present. Goals, purposes, agreements (implicit and explicit), commitment, possibilities, and potential all shape the moment.
- Context as history: Backgrounds, historical discourse, myths, origin stories, backstories, and triggered memories form critical associations with current events.
Context and Randomness
In the Information Age, information both constitutes reality (context) and is a piece of data (content) that informs our understanding of reality. Actions and events do not happen in a vacuum. A bad cop cannot be divorced from the culture of his police force. Seemingly random incidents of police brutality do not occur in isolation.
Indeed, even randomness is a matter of context, as demonstrated by renowned physicist David Bohm, whose findings imply that randomness vanishes whenever the context is deepened or broadened. This means that randomness can no longer be viewed as intrinsic or fundamental.
Bohm’s insights into randomness can reorder science, as summarized in the following statements (Bohm and Peat 1987):
… what is randomness in one context may reveal itself as simple orders of necessity in another broader context. (133) It should therefore be clear how important it is to be open to fundamentally new notions of general order, if science is not to be blind to the very important but complex and subtle orders that escape the coarse mesh of the “net” on current ways of thinking. (136)
Accordingly, Bohm posits that when scientists describe a natural system’s behavior as random, this label may not describe the system at all but rather the degree of understanding of that system—which could be total ignorance or another blind spot. The profound implications for science (Darwin’s random mutation theory, etc.) are beyond the scope of this blog.
Still, we can consider the notion of randomness as akin to a black box into which we place items until a new context emerges. Emerging contexts are a matter of inquiry—our next discovery or interpretation — which reside in us as humans.
Review the deck below with two slides. Review the first slide then click the “>” button to the next slide to experience a new context.
Being as Context
Humans make sense of life in the meaning we assign to events. When we reduce life to mere matter or transactions, we become lost, empty, and even despondent.
In 1893, French sociologist Emile Durkheim, the father of sociology, termed this dynamic anomie—without meaning—the disintegration of what binds us to greater society, which leads to resignation, deep despair, and even suicide.
Each of these contextual layers (as identified above) involves, either implicitly or explicitly, our way of being. To discern context requires discerning and listening into being: the self-discovery to reveal the interpretations and perceptions we hold.
In a sense, we are literary beings. Things matter to us because they bring meaning to our existence. By perceiving, observing, sensing, and interpreting experiences, we make meaning, and meaning makes us. The nature of “being” is contextual—it is neither a substance nor a process; rather, it is a context for experiencing life that brings coherence to our existence.
The first choice we ever make is one that we might not be conscious of. To what reality do we grant being? In other words, what do we choose to acknowledge: what do we pay attention to? To whom do we listen? How do we listen, and what interpretations do we acknowledge? These become the framework for the reality through which we think, plan, act, and react.
Listening is our hidden context: Our blind spots, threats, and fears; our content, structure, and processes; our expectations, identities, and dominant cultural norms; and our web of interpretations, framing, and horizon of possibilities all offer a context for our words and actions.
Listening Shapes Context
Every situation we deal with shows up for us in some context or another, even when we are not aware of or do not notice what that context is.
Consider the daily occurrence of making and receiving “requests.” When someone makes a request of you, in what context does this request occur for you? In our research, we see several possible interpretations:
- As a demand, a request occurs as an order. We may feel disdain towards it or resist it—or perhaps even procrastinate on fulfilling it.
- As a burden, a request occurs as another item in our list of tasks. Overwhelmed, we grudgingly manage requests with some resentment.
- As an acknowledgment, we accept requests as an affirmation of our competence to fulfill them.
- As a co-creator, a request occurs to us as a future to create. We negotiate requests and explore ways, often with others, of fulfilling them.
The context is decisive.
Indeed, the context in which we receive requests reveals how we listen and, more importantly, shapes how comfortable we are with making requests.
In John Godfrey Saxe’s poem “The Blind Men and the Elephant” blind men wanted to perceive the elephant by touch. By touching parts of the elephant, each person created their own version of how the animal looked.
Context Reveals Process and Content
In the grammar of being human, we often focus on what we know or do (content) and how we know or do something (process). We often ignore, diminish, or outright dismiss who we are and why we do things (context).
Content answers what we know and how we know it. Process answers how and when to apply what we know. But context explores who and why, shaping our horizon of possibilities.
Why we do something offers insights into the context of who we are. (See video here “Know your Why”)
Consider this analogy: You walk into a room that feels off. Unbeknownst to you, all the light bulbs in that room are giving off a blue hue. To “fix” the room, you purchase furniture (content), rearrange it, paint walls, and even redecorate (process). But the room still feels off, as it would under a blue hue.
What’s required instead is a new view—a new way of seeing the room. A clear bulb will provide that. Process and content cannot get you to a different context, but shifting the context reveals the necessary process to deliver the content.
Context is decisive, and it begins in our listening. Can we hear with our eyes and see with our ears?
For example, if our context for dealing with others is that “people can’t be trusted,” this view is the context that shapes the processes we adopt and the content we observe.
With this view, we are likely to question whether the evidence that the person we are dealing with can be trusted. We will highlight anything that comes up that might question their trustworthiness. And when they are actually attempting to be fair with us, we are likely to minimize it or miss it completely.
To deal with how the context of this situation occurs for us, we are likely to be defensive or at least wary in dealing with that person.
Hidden contexts, like a concealed or unexamined bulb, can deceive and reveal us.
Context and Change
Context also plays a critical role in our notion of change. For instance, linear change as an improvement is quite different from nonlinear change as volatile and disruptive.
- Incremental change alters content. Changing the current state requires improving the past.
Suggesting Friday as casual day is an improvement in past content (what we do) that doesn’t require an examination of any previous assumptions.
- Nonlinear change alters context. Transforming an organization requires a new context, a future that is not extrapolated from the past. It requires revealing the underlying assumptions on which we base current decisions, structures, and actions.
Mandating diversity training for all executives sets new expectations about the future that will require the reexamination of past assumptions (who we have been and are becoming). Such a change, however, is often treated as adopting new content rather than creating a new context.
In their 2000 HBR article “Reinvention Roller Coaster,” Tracy Goss et al. define organizational context as “the sum of all the conclusions that members of the organization have reached. It is the product of their experience and their interpretations of the past, and it determines the organization’s social behavior or culture. Unspoken and even unacknowledged conclusions about the past dictate what is possible for the future.”
Organizations, like individuals, must first confront their past and begin to understand why they must break with their outmoded present to create a new context.
Context is Decisive
Consider our pre- current- and post-COVID world. A significant event has revealed many assumptions. What does it mean to be an essential worker? How do we work, play, educate, buy groceries, and travel? What does coaching look like? Social distancing and Zoom conferencing are new norms that find us exploring Zoom fatigue.
How has this pandemic revealed inequities in the context of “essential workers,” health care, economic relief, government resources, etc.? How do we view the current business context where we’ve outsourced our ability to respond to a pandemic to other nations? Will COVID alter the way we view happiness beyond individual and economic metrics to include social cohesion, solidarity, and collective wellness?
Interruptions in the flow of life offer a break from the past, revealing beliefs, assumptions, and processes that previously concealed norms. We become aware of outmoded norms and can now reimagine new contexts in so many parts of our lives.
Any new normal will likely unfold within some unconceived context that will take time to sort out. Only by listening for and understanding context can we embrace the different possibilities before us.