Context is key when communicating over text, social media

By Mike Cook
For The Bellingham Business Journal

Did you ever get an email or a text message from someone and have an immediate negative reaction only to find out later you had misinterpreted the meaning?

Of course you have, we all have.

The unfortunate part of these instances is that in many if not all cases the sender could have avoided the misunderstanding by managing the context of their message. Better yet, they could have chosen to deliver their message in person or by telephone if there was a concern for misinterpretation. However, since we know our meaning we assume others will share the same frame of reference.

That means the effect we have when we communicate is powerfully determined by context. This is a lesson that we learn and relearn throughout our lives and sometimes the lessons are costly.

Context is defined as the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed

The full value of the digital medium as a communication tool will not be realized until the gap between the technology and the skill of the users is addressed. There is not a lot of evidence that this gap is often even recognized.

Much of the communication gap is the common failure to take context into account when communicating in the digital medium. No facial expressions, no body language, no tone of voice often leads to meaning being left to the mind of the receiver. One thing I have learned the hard way — left to make up meaning people almost always opt for the worst possible option. Self-preservation is a strong instinct!

More specifically, how does our limited appreciation for context continue to undermine the power of rapidly evolving social media tools?

Recently I was staying at a friend’s house overnight. He needed to make a trip to the local grocery store. On his way out the door he shouted over his shoulder, “If you are hungry there is pasta salad in the fridge!”

Pasta salad, pasta salad, when we did we start calling cold pasta in a bowl a salad? “Salad” has been confusing to me for some time, since I was a kid, but I have learned to live with and am for the most part at peace with its seeming ambiguity. I now know that the seeming endless procession of salads in life is constrained only by the boundaries of definition — salad: a cooked or uncooked food prepared with a savory or piquant dressing and usually served cold. (This definition does not include German potato salad which is of course always best served warm but does include Jell-O salad, which is just wrong!)

A couple of years back another friend, a mischief maker I might add, turned that on its ear one evening when he posed this scenario; “If you see chopped up vegetables in a bowl, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, etc. you readily recognize that mixture as salad. What if you dump those same elements out onto the table top, is it still a salad? For a moment time stood still, and then I got his point, when we see something out of the context we know it in it is sometimes hard to recognize it for what it really is. Are we not the same way about people and the messages they carry?

Yes, Twitter is useful, texts are helpful too, as is email. LinkedIn can be a remarkable resource for inter-company communication. However, until we address our ignorance and apathy around the power of context we will continue to make the same mistakes over and over. We will confuse the message and the messenger, we will take opinions as facts because of the source, we will apply discounts to information presented from certain sources or simply ignore the information altogether.

In short, we will undermine the social media tools we and/or our company have invested in because we have not advanced our communication practices to match the power of the tools at our disposal. We still do not recognize that meaning, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

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