Are We Sharing the Same Context?

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Our language fails us. Worse, our “common” language fails us. It lulls us into a false sense of complacency—that what we said is what was heard. That what was heard was what we meant. That everything will go according to plan because we all agreed when we were talking together.

Context matters.

Big time.

When we do not share the same context, we are almost guaranteed there will be misunderstandings. Even when we share the same context, we must be explicit to avoid misunderstandings. Several experiences over the past couple of years brought this home to me.

Common Sense (Is Not So Common)

Perhaps the biggest universal failing of our language is the phrase “common sense.” The problem is not in using the phrase. The problem is common sense does not exist. Cultural sense exists, or, more precisely, a constructed sense within a group exists. Clifford Geertz points this out in his essay “Common Sense as a Cultural System” in Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology. As everyone knows, it is just common sense not to argue with Clifford Geertz.

How many of you know of Clifford Geertz? I did not until I started putting together this piece. I had arrived at everything humans do is a social construct some years ago when I found out biology went from the 2 kingdoms I learned about in high school to 6 kingdoms. Did anyone ask Nature what it thought about this development? How many humans believe there are 6 kingdoms (or 8)? Does it matter? I made it about 25 years without any issue basking in the ignorance of 2 kingdoms.

So what is my point here? That the emphasis is on “common” when talking about “common sense.” That cultural context is what helps determine what is common.

Context as a Builder of “Common”

Instead of expecting people to have some “common sense,” we should create a shared context for whatever the particular interaction is about. Clearly, not all interactions rise to the level of requiring a shared context. Instead, we should only create a shared context for anything we care about. And by “care about,” I mean if we are going to get upset about the outcome being different than we desired, we did “care about” it.

We should have created a shared context.

Creating a shared context may not require anything more than asking what everyone thinks something means. An example would be asking, “What does ‘critical thinking’ mean to you? What does it look like?” Among the answers we will likely find commonality as well as divergence. We need to highlight both, and we need to resolve those meanings that are divergent. We do not need people to be in agreement to the extent they change their personal definition, but we do need them to agree to a working definition for the group task at hand.

Another example would be asking what “collaboration” means and looks like. Some may say that an example of collaboration would be 4 people each writing a chapter in a book. Others may say the 4 people would work together writing and editing each others contributions to all 4 chapters. Both are correct, and both are wrong—depending upon the context. But mixing the 2 without sharing the context first is lethal to the viability of the group.

What if we had the expectation that the people we are working with on a project had the same availability as we do, and what would happen if reality were different from our expectation? What would happen to the project? What would happen to the relationships?

By abandoning the notion “common sense” is common, and working toward a shared context at the beginning of a collaboration, we can reduce the frustration and dysfunction that will occur with any project involving people.

Resolving Differing Cultural Contexts

Not sharing a common definition is one problem, but not sharing a common culture is an order of magnitude thornier. Now you may be thinking that I am referring to cultures in the sense of regions or nationalities. These do present challenges, but we often are at least aware that differences may exist. For example, an American working on a project with an Italian would likely notice differences exist as would the Italian. How well these cultural differences are resolved depends upon a variety of factors, but at least they are noticed.

The differing cultural contexts I am referring to are those that exist between what appear to be similar cultural groups, but their working cultures are different. In higher ed, an example would be the differing cultures of faculty and staff. When these 2 groups interact on projects, the cultural contexts brought to the project are vastly different, and if a common context is not established, the ride will be bumpier than necessary.

An example of this is what constitutes a workday. Prior commitments aside, what expectation exists that the group could meet on a Friday afternoon at 3 PM? What about meeting during Spring break? Is the break a week away from classes for students, a vacation for faculty, and anything other than just another week of work for staff? What cultural assumptions are brought to the table under the guise of “common sense?” Please note I am not suggesting any particular way of thinking about this is correct. I am suggesting that not having a conversation at the beginning of a project about expectations has serious consequences.

Finding a Threshold

At this point, you may be thinking that you need to find a common context on nearly everything you do. In practice, we all need to find what is an acceptable threshold for establishing a common context. Some things matter more than others, but unless we figure out what things truly matter versus those that do not, we have a tendency to stumble across our threshold. If you have gotten angry about an outcome because other people did something other than you expected of them, but you did not create a common context first, you have crossed your threshold.

Can you let go of some things so you may set your threshold higher? What is truly important to you in the big scheme of things?

Keep in mind, sharing a culture allows us to move through the day without having to negotiate many “standards” such as:

  • how close people can stand together before invading personal space.
  • if looking a person in the eye is acceptable or not.

What if you had to negotiate these? Would you negotiate these? Maybe they do not matter to you, or they do not matter so much. This is finding your threshold, and it is important to do. Every interaction you need to negotiate will take energy, and you only have so much energy in a day. The great challenge is in finding what you can let go of. We tend to cling to things that really do not matter, but we view them as essential to being alive. How is it other people can let go of these same things that trigger us to react?

I am not suggesting you should give up everything that is important to you, or even many things that are important to you. I am suggesting you reflect on why these things are important to you. Doing this will help you identify where you need to establish a shared context as well as giving you a way to explain to others why something is important to you. As you explain to others why a particular way of doing things is important to you, they may be able to offer another way that still accommodates your basic need. This is finding a shared context.

Steps for Establishing a Shared Context

When working with another person or group that you have not set a shared context with before, be sure to:

  1. find your threshold for what matters.
  2. find out what others mean when they think of, for example, “collaboration” (if this is an item above your threshold). Ask them to describe what “collaboration” looks like.
  3. avoid arguments over the “correct” definition. You are wanting to establish a working definition for any interactions. The people involved only need to agree this is what the definition will be for this group’s purposes, including you. They can go back to their “correct” definition everywhere else.
  4. keep people to the working definition. If they appear to be straying from what was agreed, ask them how what they are doing fits with the agreed upon working definition.
  5. watch for other items that may be above your threshold, but were not negotiated. You may need to negotiate them as they occur.
  6. be open to renegotiation. The working definition may need to change as the project or relationship progresses. Life is dynamic.