The Importance of Context in Communication

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  • 0:00 Context and Communication
  • 0:50 Physical Context
  • 2:05 Temporal Context
  • 3:08 Social-Psychological Context
  • 4:11 Cultural Context
  • 5:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

We spend a lot of time communicating, so it's important to be aware of how different contexts can impact your communication. Explore the four main contexts of communication, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Context and Communication

This is John Study. John Study likes to communicate, and he's pretty good at it. But what makes him good at communication? Well, for one, he understands the importance of context, or the circumstances and setting of communication. You see, we communicate all the time. But, how we communicate changes based on who we are with, what sort of events are occurring around us, our opinions and beliefs, and where we are. Anything, from an empty stomach to bad weather, to an awkward situation, can form the context that defines our ability to communicate. Great communicators need to know how to interact in any context.

Physical Context

Let's start with the most obvious form of context. Physical context is the actual setting. This includes things like the physical location, the time of day, the noise level, the weather, etc. Now, obviously, physical context can dramatically impact communication. When John Study is at the rock concert, he cheers and claps and jumps around, communicating his excitement, approval of the band, and shared enthusiasm with friends. At the library, John Study may rely more on nonverbal communication, smiling in reassurance, rolling his eyes at an assignment or pretending to sleep to communicate boredom. In each scenario, he is communicating, conveying information, but that message is only received because he responds appropriately to the context. If John Study were being completely still and quiet at the concert, his friends may not understand that he is having fun, and if he starts jumping and cheering in the library, he'll be escorted out. And that's not good communication.

Temporal Context

Physical context is pretty obvious, but there are more things that influence communication than just the setting. For example, how about the expectations? The temporal context is the expectations that people have based on past experiences. If John Study's friends go to the coffee shop every week to talk about their relationships, then by inviting his friends for coffee, John Study has set up an expectation that a certain sort of communication will occur. If he arrives and just sits quietly on his laptop listening to music, the friend will probably be confused, maybe even frustrated. Is John Study acting inappropriately for the physical context? Not at all, but based on their past experiences, he's not meeting his friend's communication expectations. This is something we should always keep in mind. People's expectations about communication are defined by their past experiences, whether we were a part of those experiences or not.

Social-Psychological Context

This next type of context is all about relationships. A social-psychological context is the balance between people's emotional states and their personal relationships. For example, say John Study is in a bad mood, but he's having a meeting with his boss. John Study wants to remain professional, and so he tries to hide his mood and maintains a conversational, productive tone. However, when he meets up later with his friends, he is much more comfortable. The relationship between John Study and his friend is more personal and more casual, so John Study can talk about his bad mood. Again, if John Study doesn't pay attention to this context, then he could end up in some awkward situations. Maybe his friends are offended because John Study is being so withdrawn and formal. Maybe his boss is offended that John Study is being so casual. Understanding context is important.

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