#22 Being Understood #2

by Steven Cerri on December 18, 2006

Being Understood #2

“Imagine Being Understood – Again”

Good evening!

I want to spend one more blog entry on the topic of “context.” In the last blog I introduced you to the phrase “I didn’t steal your wallet.” and I showed you how if you repeated the phrase several times with emphasis on different words each time, you could convey different meanings.

For example, below I’ve written the same phrase over and over again. I’ve made one of the words “bold” and blue. As you read each phrase out loud, speak the bold word with emphasis and notice what happens to the meaning of the whole phrase.

1. “I didn’t steal your wallet.”

2. “I didn’t steal your wallet.”

3. “I didn’t steal your wallet.”

4. “I didn’t steal your wallet.”

5. “I didn’t steal your wallet.”

Notice how the meaning of each phrase changes as you change the word emphasized. This changing or transmission of the “meaning” of a communication based on non-verbal cues instead of the meaning conveyed by the content is called “context”.

Therefore, we can say that a human communication is made up of “content and context.” And as we can see in the five phrases above, the meaning structured by the context can and usually does “override” the meaning conveyed by the content.

This is a huge conclusion. Let me repeat it:

The meaning conveyed by the context usually overrides the meaning conveyed by the context.

So…

IN FACE-TO-FACE COMMUNICATION….

Context is conveyed by facial expressions, a smile, a furrowed brow, a look, or some other visual cue.

Context is conveyed by the voice tone, inflections, speed of communication, loudness, or some other cue based on sound.

Context is conveyed by a touch, a gesture, and hand-shake, or some other emotional process.

IN PHONE COMMUNICATION…

Context is NOT CONVEYED by facial expressions, a smile, a furrowed brow, a look, or some other visual cue, because you can’t see the person you are communicating with.

Context is conveyed by the voice tone, inflections, speed of communication, loudness, or some other cue based on sound.

Context is NOT CONVEYED by a touch, a gesture, and hand-shake, or some other emotional process, because you can’t see the person you are communicating with.

IN EMAIL COMMUNICATION…

Context is NOT CONVEYED by facial expressions, a smile, a furrowed brow, a look, or some other visual cue, because you can’t see the person you are communicating with.

Context is NOT CONVEYED by the voice tone, inflections, speed of communication, loudness, or some other cue based on sound, because you can’t hear the person you are communicating with.

Context is NOT CONVEYED by a touch, a gesture, and hand-shake, or some other emotional process, because you are not in the presence of the person you are communicating with.

Therefore, the whole meaning of the communication must be conveyed by the “content” and we have seen that content is a poor way to communicate meaning, unless you are conveying completely unambiguous information.

It should be clear now why emails are so dangerous as a communication tool. They are very short on context. Therefore, if you want to use email as a form of communication that is more than just raw data, it is important to spend the time in the beginning of the email necessary to establish the context. The introduction portion of the email should establish the way in which the email is to understood.

My rule of thumb is, if I want to communicate with someone, my first choice is to meet with them face-to-face. If that’s not possible, then I’ll call them on the phone. Only if I can’t meet in person or call them on the phone will I use email as my communication vehicle. And then, I’ll spend a good deal of the first part of the email establishing the context so that the person reading my email will know exactly what I want the meaning of my communication to be.

Be well

Steven Cerri

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