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What is Context?

Updated: Sep 21, 2022

Not a word that many people will have used in everyday conversation, 'Context' carries a power of its own.

If you search this word in the English Dictionary it suggests that the main use of the word context in a sentence is to influence the meaning or effect a specific word has. For example:

"Your understanding of what I said has been affected because you took it out of context".

For myself, context better suits it's second meaning: "the set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event, situation, etc." i.e. Context is a set of circumstances and facts which surroud each individual person. We each have a context and a different set of components which make it up and inform our decisions.

Context is important, but why?

Context gives us answers to many of the questions we ask about other people. Why does Sussie eat her Banana from the bottom up? Well, it's because that's how her parents did it and they inform a large part of her context. Why did old Bojo vote against school children having access to free school meals? It might have been because the context he grew up in was one of luxury, he was sheltered from the nightmare of not knowing when your next meal was coming and may not understand what it feels like to live in porverty.

It's important to note that context does not give anyone a pass to have poor or bad behaviour. In other words, your past does not excuse your present. Context can inform you of why someone does or has done something which can in turn help to reduce the risk of it happening again, either with the same person or someone in a similar situation.

Whilst I myself am agnostic, I do have confidence in the fundamental Christian teaching 'Do not judge, or you too will be judged.' How many times a day do we see others and make a snap judgement. I will raise my hand because I do it too. The countless times I've heard others commenting on news readers clothing, forgetting that they may not have a say in their 'on air' wardrobe. I've been in situations where I've met others who identify as female with hair on their top lip and silently thought about why they haven't gotten rid of it.

What I have come to learn through this is the value that context holds in these situations.

Somebody elses body hair and what they choose to do with it has zero effect on me and my life. What context gives me is an insight into why they might choose to have a hairy top lip. They may have been through intensive chemotheraphy, meaning they lost all of their hair and now it's growing back they want to celebrate it. This person is comfortable in their body and that should be honoured.

Whilst not every situation you come across will be this extreme and you may never truly know someones context it's still a relevant part of your understanding of others lives.

When I find myself making snap judgements I now choose to challenge myself when I do and I question my reasoning for it.

Heres what I ask myself:

Is what this person doing hurting me or others?

Why has my mind made this judgement?

Has a societal standard caused me to think this way?

How can I change my way of thinking?

What context are they coming from?

After having a chat with my Husband about this, the immediate example he thought of was when he's driving and someone in front of him is driving unaturally slowly, which for many people the automatic reaction is to get frustrated.

The mistake people often make is to assume that everyone else's context is the same as their own. We don't know why this person is driving slowly. They could have a baby in the car, transporting a five tier wedding cake or taking someone fragile to the hospital. The lesson is to first understand that you may never know the reasoning, secondly, to stop assuming that everyone is rushing to get to a destination the same as you, and lastly, to show some level of empathy and consideration for this person you know nothing about.

We should all try to challenge our own and others thinking in this way. We live in a world with an aray of diverse cultures and beautiful people. We will miss out on these things if we are always judging from the side lines. We need to have a deeper understanding of each others lives and backgrounds.

Context is the fundamental step in getting us there.

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