CONTEXT

I was listening to a Ron White comedy album that was recorded in front of a live audience. (Why do we say “live audience?" Are there dead audiences out there?)  One of his two opening jokes was, "Did you ever take a dump so big that your pants fit better afterwards." His audience roared with laughter, and it made me wish I could start my first class of each semester with an opening joke like that. But I can’t. It has to do with context. I got to thinking about context and realized what a dominant role it plays in society. The more I examined the concept, the more I realized that it could well be the main attribute in defining a society.

Most behaviors in a society are deemed appropriate or inappropriate based on the situation (context) in which the behavior occurs. A loud fart at a fraternity party is usually an acceptable behavior, while it is not appropriate in a classroom, even though the audience may be the same people. Anyone whose behavior has been called ‘inappropriate’ or ‘immature’ is most likely guilty of violating one of the millions of unwritten rules about context. The more immature one is, the more violations to their credit. In fact, maturity is a process of learning about what is appropriate and inappropriate in any given situation – i.e. context. Thus the expression, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

My Merriam-Webster dictionary defines context as: “1: the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning. 2: the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs: ENVIRONMENT, SETTING.” It’s a very broad definition that includes ambiance and many other associations with context. Take the three basic rules of real estate: Location, location and location. The ‘context’ of any given piece of property is its location, and plays a dominant role in determining the property’s value.

Fashion is an ever-changing statement about context, and one that most people are quite conscious about. I’ve never been a slave to fashion, and often have been accused of ignoring it. One year a student of mine told me I looked like a lettuce picker from California. I suppose there is nothing wrong with that if I had been picking lettuce in California. What the student was telling me, in his own way, was that I was not dressed appropriately for the situation (context) in which I was working.

Most people wear suits when interviewing for white-collar jobs that don’t require wearing suits once you are hired. I’ve never really grasped that concept, but then if you see me wearing a suit, you know I’m out of context and uncomfortable about it. There use to be a fine line between being dressed appropriately and inappropriately. That line isn’t so fine any longer, and that’s fine with me. But wearing a bone in your nose is inappropriate in all but a very limited number of contexts – most of which involve traveling a great distance.

Violations of context can be appropriate. For example, in humor, what makes something funny is when it is unexpected – something that is outside of the context of the situation. Speakers often start their speeches with jokes. Their jokes would probably not be funny in a comedy club, but because the jokes violate the context of the speaking situation, people laugh at them. In a comedy club, people expect jokes and often laugh at things that really are not funny. Because of the context, they are in the laughing mode. This brings two questions to mind. If no one laughs at a joke, is it still a joke? And what if people laugh at something that isn’t a joke. Can it then be called a joke? A famous comedian once said, “If you fall down, it’s funny. If I fall down it’s not funny.” It’s all in the context.

It is easiest to remember things that are unexpected (occur out of context). I have found that the best analogies are those that cross the line of context. A former student of mine recently emailed me an update. He said that he didn’t really remember all that much from my operations management class but he would always remember the competitive priorities of Good, Cheap and Fast. If your company can produce a product that has two of those three attributes, you will have a competitive priority. Fast and cheap food is the key to the fast food industry’s success. Someone in his class asked me if I knew of an example of a business with all three. I replied, “No, … but there was that hooker in Hong Kong.” Inappropriate? Perhaps. Effective? Definitely.

There are also jokes about context. I was recently talking to a tattooed Harley biker when the subject of motor scooters came up -- Lambretta in particular. He said, “Riding on a Lambretta is like having sex with a fat woman. They are a lot of fun to ride, but you don’t want to be seen on one.” Of course, riding a Lambretta in Rome is quite different from riding a Lambretta to the Sturgis bike rally. One is in context and the other definitely not. There are also appropriate and inappropriate contexts for that analogy. In my conversation with him it was very appropriate. However, in this forum it may be inappropriate -- it all depends on the viewpoint (context) of the reader.

So if someone says you are immature, out of fashion, eccentric, bizarre, weird, or odd, just remind him or her that his or her perception of the context is different than yours, and that simply by being there you have changed the context. They will probably look at you very strangely, but it's a good way to keep life interesting