The importance of context

Some of the books I remember most fondly from back when I was a child were the ones about Mafalda, a compilation of comic strips from the sixties and seventies created by Quino, the great Argentinian cartoonist.

I don´t remember how old I was when I started reading those books; I do remember being curious about words and expressions in Argentinian Spanish, and not understanding some of the jokes. But I didn´t mind, I loved them anyway. I re-read them so many times that I ended up memorizing many of the strips, and years later I finally got to understand them... Quino´s sense of humour is really, really clever in my opinion, and many of the topics he explored in Mafalda´s comic strips and his other graphic humour works remain as relevant now as they were back then.

Today I´m bringing you this strip, to illustrate a topic that came up recently:

Mafalda comic strip - Mafalda and Susanita talking about understanding adults

Here´s the transcription in English: it´s a conversation between Mafalda (a girl who´s about six years old) and her friend Susanita:

- Susanita: Why on Earth do adults spend their time doing and saying things one doesn´t understand?
- Mafalda: It´s very simple, Susanita. When you arrive at the cinema and it turns out the movie has already started, do you understand it?
- Susanita: No.
- Mafalda: Well, the same happens with adults. How can we possibly understand them, if, by the time we arrived, all of them had already started!?

What do you think of this reflection? Leaving aside the joke about kids not understanding adults, the truth is that sometimes we adults don´t understand each other either. Have you ever been in a class, or a meeting at work, and felt completely clueless, as if you had arrived in the middle of the movie?

The problem is that, more often than not, there´s certain basic information missing, and it´s assumed that everybody knows it: the context has not been defined. This may seem very obvious but in reality, it´s not, and it causes more communication issues than you would imagine. Going back to the work meeting example, maybe there was a previous email conversation that didn´t include all participants, and people go straight into discussing solutions without first checking that everyone knows exactly what the problem is. In a classroom, for example, the teacher may start teaching a topic that´s completely new and different, getting straight into the detail, without first explaining what it is about, why it is important, and how it fits with all the previous learning. Both the meeting and the class will be much more productive if there´s an initial investment in explaining the context.

And in a similar way, each person also has a context: each of us has a history, a family, a culture, a set of values, personal circumstances, thoughts, emotions, etc., etc., etc. The more we know about a person´s context, the better we will understand them, and the less we will judge. That´s why I think that, in our day-to-day, we could all benefit from clarifying the context of our conversations, this way getting to understand each other much better.

But be careful not to give too many explanations! It´s not necessary to explain everything, only the essentials. You´ll avoid being told what my mother used to tell me when I rambled on: start at the end! 😀

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