I can tell when I’m being taken out of context.
There’s a look strangers give me sometimes when I’m walking through a Walmart, or in a third-world alley, or in a four-star restaurant. I don’t quite fit in. There’s something a bit off, and people can sense it, even if they’re not sure what it is that makes them feel that way.
At Walmart, I’m perhaps a bit too ‘metro,’ and in that third-world alley, I look way too rich. In the four-star restaurant, on the other hand, I don’t look rich enough. Maybe I just walked in from the alley. They don’t know, and for the sake of the point I want to make, neither do you.
Context can be everything.
I can tell when people put all the pieces together and figure out what my context is. I’m traveling full time. A young entrepreneur who writes and looks for new experiences. Someone who wants to understand the local culture and make friends wherever I go. I don’t choose where I end up, but I do choose to live there.
Suddenly, whether because we exchange a few words or they catch a detail they missed before or recognize me from my blog or TV or something they saw in a magazine, I’m no longer an enigma to be worried over or feared. Instead, I’m a fascination. People buy me drinks and ask me to come meet their family. They want to interview me for something or invite me to their night club.
The power of context is even more impactful on a larger scale.
If a ragtag collection of people start taking over public spaces in hundreds of cities around the world, causing the police in cash-strapped countries to work overtime and politicians to worry over their careers, you may wonder who these hooligans occupying public property are. If you keep up with the news and the economic situation and read history books and have a sense of why these people are protesting on the other hand, you may reconsider which side contains the hooligans.
Context is different for everyone.
If you’re Iranian, everything you’ve seen and heard and learned in life may tell you that Israel bombing any part of your country would be a very bad thing. If you’re an Israeli, you may feel that tactical strikes on Iranian nuclear research centers would be in your own, and the world’s, best interest.
If you get one person from each perspective together in a room and allow them to talk, it’s possible that one or the other may have a change of context, but it’s unlikely. Information coming from another person is suspect. If both people were somehow able to live through the experiences that the other has lived, however, it’s easy to imagine that each may come out of the room with wildly different opinions.
The only way to increase the reliability of your context is to increase the scope of your experiences.
Go. Try. Learn. Do. Repeat.
Update: February 14, 2017
Context is vital. It’s also something we take for granted, as if it arrived fully formed and consequently can’t be altered. We are of a certain political persuasion, and that’s that. We adhere to a certain faith, and there’s no way to change that.
This, of course, isn’t true. Context, like instinct, is fueled by knowledge, experience, and thought. The more of these ingredients we have, the better results we’ll tend to get.