07 March 2018

Imagine you have been stripped down to your underwear and dropped in a lake. You have no idea where in the world you are, and when you exhaustedly crawl ashore there is no sign of human habitation or agriculture. You seem to be in the middle of nowhere.

Terrifying?

Not if you’re the astronaut hero of the movie Gravity, and against all the odds you’ve just made it back to Earth after being stranded in space, facing the imminent prospect of death by collision, incineration or asphyxiation. It is a testament to the narrative skill of the filmmakers that when Sandra Bullock pulls herself on to that alien shore and lies there clutching at wet sand, we rejoice in the conviction that all her troubles are over. She’s breathing fresh air! She’s on solid ground!

Yet exactly the same scene could have been the chilling start to a survival adventure. A lone woman with no food, map, shoes, matches, phone or knowledge of the wilderness has to find her way back to civilization. A daunting prospect. But because we know how much worse her situation was just a short while earlier, and we anticipate a NASA rescue mission, we see this scene as a happy ending.

Truth

'To the jaundiced honey seems bitter, to those bitten by rabid dogs water is a terror.' -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Context makes all the difference to our impression of reality. I’ve worked with companies that celebrated wholeheartedly when they made a loss of several million dollars, because the previous years had been so much worse. A modest gift from a child may be much more precious than the same gift from a wealthy adult. A cold beer tastes different after a long, hot day of manual work. Party leader Jeremy Corbyn claimed Labour had ‘won’ the 2017 UK general election, despite taking 56 fewer parliamentary seats than the gov­erning Conservative Party, simply because everyone had expected Theresa May to do so much better. Context changes meaning.

Such context is part of the complexity of the world we are trying to understand. It is easy to say we should know the context of any actions and events we evaluate but harder to say which context is relevant or appropriate. Hearing a story in one context will give a very different impression to hearing the same story told within a different context. Deciding which contexts to highlight and which to downplay is a critical part of shaping reality.

In practice:

·      Always check the context!

·      Strengthen your arguments by framing them with the most helpful context.

·      Change attitudes to objects, people and issues by changing the context.

But watch out for . . .

·      Misinformers who share seemingly shocking news without understanding the full context.

·      Misleaders who deliberately leave out critical context, especially when quoting others.

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