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Context Is King: The Role of Context in Communication

By Sue George and William Harris

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The Last Samurai, Edward Zwick’s thoughtful epic about Japan’s first uneasy steps into a modern world defined by Western values, is an entertaining, beautifully shot movie. But it’s also a fascinating study of culture clash and how context is vitally important to effective communication. At one point, the samurai leader Katsumoto says to Nathan Algren, an American soldier captured by the warriors, “Many of our customs seem strange to you. And the same is true of yours. For example, not to introduce yourself is considered extremely rude, even among enemies.”

Katsumoto’s observation, of course, is about context — the temporal, social and situational frame that surrounds any exchange of information. Japanese is a high-context language in which the time of day, the time of year, the formality of the situation, the age, gender, and social status of the speaker, as well as the age, gender, and social status of the addressee, all affect what is said and how it’s said. English is a lower-context language that is less dependent on situational cues.

As marketing communications professionals, we may not be engaged in a bloody conflict on foreign soil (at least not literally), but we should be equally aware of and attuned to the context of any message transmission. Whether our communication is spoken, written or nonverbal, context truly is king, and we need to be loyal, faithful and studious subjects.

What is context?


Context can be explained most simply as the circumstances surrounding a communication. Sometimes, these circumstances are best defined according to the number of people involved in a communication. Common examples of communication contexts include the following:

  • Person-to-person or interpersonal (any two people — formal or informal)
  • Group (among three or more people, all with a common interest or characteristic like age, education, sex or location)
  • Mass (broadcasting to many, many people)
  • Intrapersonal (involves just one person)

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Another way of understanding communication context types is through the relationships of the parties doing the communicating. Relative status and social standing influence our communications. Hence, these other communication context examples:

  • Educational (involving a teacher or educator and students)
  • Organizational (involving people within a specific organization)
  • Business (involving people who are engaging in business together)
  • Workplace (involving people who work together often within the same company)
  • Customer (involving a business and its customer(s))
  • Cross-cultural (involving people from different cultures)
  • Health (involving healthcare providers and patients)
  • Family (involving members of the same family)
  • Gender (involving people of the same gender)
  • Partner (involving spouses, domestic partners, girlfriends and boyfriends, etc.)

No matter what criteria you use to define context, the boundaries are fluid. More than one context may — and frequently does — apply at any given time.

Let’s consider a few examples.

Interpersonal communication can occur in many different situations. It can be between two employees of the same company (workplace communication); between a consultant and a client (customer communication, workplace communication AND business communication); between a doctor and a patient (health communication, workplace communication AND customer communication); between a mother and a daughter (family and gender communication); or between two travelers from different continents (cross-culture communication).

Likewise, a member of the C-suite in your organization may be tasked with the unpleasant job of relaying news of poor company earnings or pending layoffs. In doing so, that corporate officer may undertake interpersonal and workplace communication (think of two C-suite officers strategizing about what to say and how); group and organizational communication (announcing the news at the company’s weekly or monthly staff meeting); and mass communication (making a statement via the company’s press release or doing an interview with the regional TV news).

As yet one more example, a teacher leading a yoga class may frequently switch back and forth between group communication (telling the entire class what to do) and interpersonal communication (softly speaking special instructions to an individual student or manually adjusting that student’s posture). All the while, the instructor is effectively doing both workplace and customer communication simultaneously.

Other Key Contexts


But wait, there’s more ...

A key context we have yet to talk about is physical context. Where is your communication occurring and what are the conditions like there? Consider factors like physical location, weather, temperature, environmental noise and lighting.

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Understanding historical context means that you comprehend the expectations, preferences and biases of your audience based on their own past experiences or those of their culture. It could also mean that you know whether your audience is in a particular situation for the first time or in a familiar situation.

Never underestimate the mood and emotions of all parties involved in a communication. Think of this as the psychological context of a situation. Knowing whether someone is stoked or depressed, eager or reluctant, excited or scared can make all the difference in your approach to communication and the likelihood that your message will be received and understood.

Last but not least, don’t discount the context of the timing of your communication. Is your keynote presentation at your industry’s most prestigious conference scheduled for first thing in the morning or immediately after slightly-too-big-and-too-filling lunch? You’ll want to speak in a way that suits the energy levels and attention span of your audience.

Practical Advice: Hone Your Inner Context Detector


There are many reasons why we often don’t take full stock of the entirety of situations in which we find ourselves, but the reality is that situations do matter. Context is a strong influence on our communications even when we don’t consciously take the time and effort to pay attention to it.

When we do attend to context, we are more engaged and thus communicate more effectively. That’s why understanding your customers and the contexts in which they communicate with you is a key part of your business communication strategy. In effective communication, a speaker, writer or actor transmits their ideas clearly to their audience with as little lost meaning as possible. You can use context to help you focus your communication processes and formats to achieve desired effects (more leads, more conversions, more sales ...).

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When we either are not capable of and/or do not take the time to observe and understand context, we’re less engaged with others and the community around us. We’re also less likely to take into account how situations influence our communication. So here are some questions that you can ask yourself to improve your own contextual awareness in every situation.

  • To whom are you communicating?
  • What is the educational and/or professional background of your audience?
  • What is your relationship with your audience?
  • Where is the communication taking place?
  • When is the communication taking place?
  • In what format is the communication happening?
  • Anything of note about the mood, personality type or behavioral tendencies of your audience?
  • What, if any, cultural considerations apply?

Communication Is Context


If you’re someone who likes to focus on concrete details and struggles with the intuitive, understanding contexts and adapting to them on the fly may be a challenge. That said, all of us can become more effective marketers and brand stewards if we take a moment to consider the context of our situation, then adapt our messaging accordingly. It doesn’t mean you have to think like a stranger in a strange land, like Nathan Algren living among samurai warriors, but it does require that you become a more sensitive, more aware communicator.