As we showed last month, ducks and Monty Python are a good illustration of how important psychological and relational context is to comedy – and communication! Another factor to consider is "situational" context.
This is psycho-social, as in, what is the larger meaning about where I am and how do I feel about it? (As opposed to "environmental" which is about external things, like lighting and temperature.) People propose marriage on a Ferris wheel because it's a romantic location. Someone who asks for a loan instead is kind of wasting the ambiance.
A good amount of comedy is based on this juxtaposition between location and content. One of Monty Python’s most memorable sketches capitalizes on this brilliantly.
The location of your conversation can have a huge impact on how your message is received. Remember that nauseous feeling you had when you reported to the principal’s office? I don’t, of course, I was the model student. But, for others, you wouldn’t get that feeling if you were sent to Build-a-Bear instead.
Some supervisors use location to demonstrate their approach to staff management. One CEO at a global financial company chose a standard office cube for her home base. Talking to the boss "down in the trenches” feels very different than in a corner office. This approach helps create a more relaxed mindset in her employees and makes her more approachable.
Similarly, I have a former supervisor who was hired at a health services organization to improve client care. He was so troubled by how the staff had been previously mistreated, he wanted them to retain as much dignity as possible. So, instead of making people move around to accommodate him, he set up shop in the only space that was not currently occupied: the boiler room in the basement.
Sometimes it can be a challenge to determine what location best sets the tone for the message you want to send. Many museums hire college-age employees and for some it can be the first job of their careers. It’s commonly required to remind them of basic workplace expectations like showing up on time or storing their coats and bags out sight. Often a simple conversation off to the side is appropriate. But when issues become critical, it’s often more effective to meet in the supervisor’s office. Talking about work performance in the boss’s domain gives the conversation a greater sense of urgency.
If every reminder took place in a formal location it would overstate the importance of each little infraction and become less meaningful. Likewise, meeting in an informal space, like the lobby, to discuss how current choices may impact their future is sending a very mixed message.
Managing the situational context by considering an appropriate location is within our control. The next step is to consider not just the social aspect, but how the environment itself affects the conversation.