Context is everything

east-coast-trainA few weeks back I was travelling on an East Coast Train when the service came to a halt.

The conductor and driver held a private conversation to establish the cause of the delay. However, someone must have flicked a wrong switch as suddenly everyone could hear their exchange.

Fortunately, this was more amusing than embarrassing.

We heard the conductor ask the driver what was going on, and the answer simply involved a suspected fault on the line. An engineer was apparently working on it, and they had been ordered to stop and pick the engineer up.

Quite a while later, we heard them discuss that the engineer wasn’t working on it and they had no idea where he’d gone. They were not sure if there actually was a fault now, but the train should move on anyway.

The conductor went back on the tannoy, not realising passengers had already heard the ‘unspun’ version from the driver during their public conversation. Passengers guffawed as the conductor put on his customer-service voice, describing the “minor technical issue” which had now been resolved.

This got me thinking. How often as communicators do we find ourselves operating within a communications environment that we do not fully understand? And how aware are we of our own messages being influenced by the communications context in which we operate?

Are we like the conductor that broadcasts his message completely oblivious to his wider surroundings, or are we tuned in to the wider communications context and using it to our advantage?

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