May 17, 2019

Why Context Matters

In my junior year of high school, we read "Le Petit Prince" by Saint-Exupéry in French class. We had to write an exploratory essay -- I have no idea how I got by. Let's just say it wasn't my best subject, and I don't remember very many phrases in French besides things like "Can I borrow your pen?" and "Which way to the library?" 

What I do remember, clearly and to this day, is the image above of an elephant being digested by a boa constrictor. (In fact, I can even read and understand the words.)

At age 16, this page in the children's book that I struggled to read (and write about!) truly had a profound impact on me. The drawing on the left is of an elephant in a boa constrictor's stomach. So is the drawing on the right. But the one on the left looks like a hat. Why? In any language the answer is the same: context.

The definition of context is the circumstances that form the setting of an event. Context can be explained, and can lead to a shift in perspective. Perspective on the other hand is point of view, and that is subjective and is challenging to shift without context.

Given how lost I was in French IV that year, it's pretty incredible that I learned such a valuable life lesson in that class: Don't make assumptions. Ask more questions. Get all the context you can before deciding that your singular, limited perspective is the correct point of view.

In today's phase of the Information Age, news travels fast and opinions are formed in the blink of an eye. Rush to judgement is the new norm, and that's scary. We demand fewer facts, myself included. We don't take time to research what happened; we glean details from headlines without clicking to read the full story. We make purchasing decisions based on the number of stars but fail to read the actual reviews. We follow trending tweets; and we miss the bigger picture.

Whenever our team at JVComms helps a client with a new communications challenge, we always start by talking about perception-- what do people (clients, employees, shareholders, press) think about your situation? Why do they think that? And next, the critical question: what are the facts? What is important about the situation that stakeholders need to know in order to see the whole picture? In other words, what is the context that is missing? Then, we work together to help the important context break through.

Knowing a boa constrictor ate an elephant, you can almost see it in the picture on the left; it looks a less like Indiana Jones' hat and more like an elephant inside a snake. You don't need the picture on the right to see it, you just need to understand the context. Without it, you'd never see the elephant; you'd have to get inside the belly of the snake to gain the perspective that there is in elephant in there. And then, alas, I fear it would be too late to matter.

(And now I'm humming the children's song "I'm being swallowed by a boa constrictor, and I don't like it very much.")

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