How do you get down from an elephant? You don’t, you get down from a duck!
I don’t remember when I first heard that joke, but I still love it. First of all, the word “duck” is just funny. (Science has proven, “if you’re going to tell a joke about an animal, make it a duck!”) Second, switching context is a classic comic technique, as when Henny Youngman coined the decidedly non-feminist one-liner, “Take my wife, please!” referring to her both as an example of something, and also a plea.
Like jokes with a twist, communication is all about context. Tone, intention and bias all influence the probability of an effective conversation. “I’ll take care of it!” means one thing in a restaurant, and quite another when talking to the local crime boss.
There are essentially five forms of context that can influence interpersonal communication.
That is, nothing you say happens in a vacuum. You are not alone on an island where your words only affect yourself. You are surrounded by natives who want to know your intentions.
Psychological context is all about who you are and what you bring to the conversation. Most people aren't troubled with day to day interactions, and there’s no way to alter your innate personality anyway. But, even on the best of days we are often required to temper our real thoughts and phrase things to be more palatable to the listener. We might be feeling a little grumpy, but we also know it’s easier to catch flies with honey than demand they fly into the bug zapper.
That’s when you need to be aware of how you might be affecting other people and alter your approach accordingly. Debbie Downer, the classic buzz killer character on Saturday Night Live, is an example of someone who DOESN’T recognize the negative effect she has on people. And of course, as anyone who brings home remnants of a stressful work life can tell you, it can sometimes be a real challenge.
I saw a sign in the office of a high school guidance counselor, posted as a reminder to students whose youth and hormones sometimes play havoc with their better judgment: “Check yourself, before you wreck yourself!”
There are a few layers here and it’s no wonder communication can get so complicated. Effective relational context depends on an agreement of who you think YOU are, who THEY think you are, who THEY think they are, who YOU think they are.
Thus, it is about your reaction to other people. A comment from a stranger might lead you to be defensive, whereas the same comment from a friend you might take as informed advice.
Another way to think about relational context is how you perceive each other's social status – given your relationship, what are your mutual expectations. On the improv stage we use this idea all the time as a shortcut to character creation. If I come in as the king, the best way to support that idea is for you to come in as a peasant. That relative social status is universally recognized. Then we can get to the comedy!
When the owner of a company is stopped at security and says, “Do you have any idea who I am?”, until that point the real relational context was unknown. Now the situation requires a quick rejiggering of expectations, something often difficult to do on the fly.
You obey your boss because, traditionally, she has a higher social status. Whereas, at home with your partner, hopefully, there might be some discussion. This is the concept that allows us to know the best supervisors are the ones who create a greater sense of partnership by fostering a more equal status.
There's a lot more going on in conversations than people generally acknowledge. So, on the one hand it can make things incredibly complicated. But, on the other, almost all of it is under our control. We'll look at the remaining factors – and more Monty Python clips – next month!