Newsletter October 08
Meaning is contextual
If I said to you the word "Five" what would it mean? We know it's a number between 4 and 6, but would that one word on its own mean anything?
If however, you had asked me "How old were you when you started school?" then the word "Five" would have more meaning because it now has a context.
Meaning is contextual, i.e. you obtain the meaning from the context. Some contexts are obvious, as in the one above, but some contexts are less obvious.
Context may be the tone of voice. Try saying, for example, the phrase "I love the works of Shakespeare" in at least a couple of different tones of voice to give it different meanings. If you add a question mark "I love the works of Shakespeare?" that again gives a different meaning.
Context may be cultural. When I lived in Scotland people would say "Where do you stay?" To me the word 'stay' meant somewhere temporary and I said I wasn't staying anywhere. What they 'meant' was "Where do you live?"
And when I first went to Uganda in 2007 and looked around a primary school, I went to shake hands with a teaching assistant. She avoided my hand and instead touched my arm and looked at the ground. This was her way of showing respect, but in a Western culture her behaviour would mean something different.
Context may be situational. Compare a man in a restaurant saying to a waitress he doesn't know "Fancy going for a drink later, sweetie?" with a wife phoning up her husband and asking the same question.
Context may be emotional or based on past experience. Let's say you have worked on a proposal for a new strategy to be implemented in your office. You feel it's a great idea and eagerly explain it to your manager. Your manager's reaction is "That won't work". While your context is "Here is a great idea worth considering" his context may be based on something you are not aware of. It may be the third time someone has come up with that idea and the last two cost a lot of time and money for no tangible result. Or he may have had an argument before he left home and isn't in the frame of mind to see anything in a positive light.
There may be too little context. Written language, especially in emails and texts can lack a lot of context which can lead to misunderstanding. We can't see the person's facial expression or hear their tone of voice. That is why emoticons and use of words such as <grin> are used to give more context.
'Meaning is contextual' is a huge topic and one we can only touch on here. If I can leave you with a thought it would be: When someone has communicated something that doesn't feel 'right', before jumping to conclusions think to yourself "What is their context for saying or writing that?"
Copyright Kim Chamberlain Successful Speaking 2008