Communication in Context

"Come on, Dad!" says one mountain climber to another. "You said you can still climb, but you're not keeping up."

"I didn't say," gasps Dad, "that I could climb as fast as a youngster."

Analyzing that exchange in relation to context will show one way to avoid being misunderstood, and to get right what people tell you.

To see the idea of context, notice that a shout of "Fire!" would mean one thing in a crowded theater, but a totally different thing on a rifle range. In a context of drama, "fiery" refers to passion; in a context of cooking, it refers to peppers. Since meaning is contextual, to really give the meaning, you must give the context.

Casual speech often assumes a context, and forgets to specify it. The father who says, "I can still climb the mountain," may assume a slower standard of climbing than his son has in mind. In the personal context of the son, it sounds like, "I can still beat you to the top." But in his own context, the father meant, "I can still get to the top."

"He's cold," could, in some context, mean that he is unfriendly, that he is efficient, that he needs a sweater, or that he needs a coffin. No matter how many times I say, "Oh, you know what I mean," you will not know what I mean unless I tell you the context. "He's, you know, cold," is a way of conveying a hint, and inviting a guess.

If you are content to have people guess at your meaning, they will. If not, form the habit of identifying the context in which your words apply. "He's cold on the job, which is good; and he's cold off the job, which is not so good."

If you are content to give up on certainty, and guess at what people mean when they tell you things, they'll let you. Otherwise, ask. Check the context. "Do you mean he's efficiently cold, nastily cold, or gravely cold?"

If you find yourself thinking, "What the heck did that mean?" consider context. "Give me your hand," means one thing coming from a lover, and quite another coming from a policeman. Before you take offense at a casual remark, be sure you heard it in context. "You get to me," becomes complimentary or insulting only when you know why it was said.

To those who ignore context, the ambiguities of language are a source of endless frustration. How does anyone get an exact meaning across? To those who take context into account, the subtleties of language are a constant delight. Communication does not take place up there on cloud nine, but down here in a known situation. When listening, identify it. When talking, specify it.

Nobody has to guess. You can tell them.

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