The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

Context and content

Regularly, when I’m seeing conversations turn in circles I’m fascinated by the misunderstanding which lead to these circles. From their very own perspective, those engaged in the exchange are right, within the context they can see, the idea they are sharing makes sense.

The difficulty to understand one another in such cases is linked to what the individuals know and assume to be a common understanding. For example, someone who has learned to read the clock on a digital clock might not be familiar with clocks using clock hands on a clock face.

Having different representations leads to different habits. With a digital clock, I find it more convenient to use a 24h display mode. Using a clock with a clock face I have to know if the time indicated is related to morning or afternoon. In English speaking countries this is supported by adding a.m. or p.m. to a time indication. But this effort doesn’t remove all possible confusion. The acronyms am and pm serve to describe the half of the day which is before noon as Ante Meridiem and after noon as Post Meridiem. This works for most of the hours but remains a challenge for the edges, it shows for example in describing if 12 pm means noon or midnight.

There still is more to describe time indications as well as sources for misunderstandings. They lead to difficulties when setting the alarm clock.

When it comes to time, we’ve experienced enough misunderstanding to verify that all involved have a common understanding.

This task is a bit less evident when it comes to different cultures and the way they use language. In anthropology, this is known through the concepts of high-context and low-context. They were introduced by Edward Hall. He identified, that in some cultures words would only be used with their explicit meaning. These are low context cultures. In other cultures, the given message has to be interpreted using tone of voice, gestures, implied meaning as well as context or situation. In those cultures, called high-context, the meaning of a word or sentence depends on the context in which they have been used.

The work here is to search for the meaning someone gives to words or phrases. Even in cultures with a habit to be as explicit as possible, there is a need to search for the meaning of what is being said.

Based on the idea that we all have our individual representation of things, that we contribute to discussions with our own way to explain things and give meaning, discussions will go astray if there is no alignment of both. Being able to see what the other is seeing, being able to feel what the other is feeling requires a willingness to establish a connection with the other. To be willing to see what the other is seeing. It’s independent of agreeing, it allows to move the discussion to “common ground”. It’s being able to discuss the same thing instead of shouting from one’s own position.

Depending on how much information someone prefers to have, it can become challenging to find common ground. It’s a balancing act to find how much information the other person wants, can cope with and finds polite. In high context cultures, it can be seen as very impolite to spell implicit details. In low context cultures, it can be seen as a lack of transparency if the information is not shared. This same difference is visible with individuals. The habit to deal with information depends on personal preferences as well as the habits culture helped establish.

It’s hard work, it requires empathy and the willingness to move towards another.

In an interview, Richard Feynman eloquently summed this up in one sentence: “when you explain a why you have to be in some framework that you allow something to be true. Otherwise, you’re perpetually asking why.”


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