The Setting Matters

a clock, positive icon, question icon and x icon all with arrows to a gear

What a person says can have different meanings depending on the setting. The context provides additional meaning to the conversation. The listener can use the setting to help decode the message.

Settings or context include: environment, partner, time of day, feelings or emotions and even history .

When someone is not able to speak, context is helpful to understand them. This is especially significant if the person doesn’t use symbols. If they rely on facial expressions, body language, and gestures, we need to know the context. When someone rubs their stomach in the kitchen, it probably means one thing. If they are in bed, it might mean something else. The same gesture could mean “I’m hungry” or “I feel sick”. The environment is an important part of the message.

In the example above, context referred to the place. Context or setting may also be the time of day. For example, a person who uses a picture board was at a meeting at 5:00. He had been there a while. He saw someone walking to the elevator. He pointed to “home”. Because of the time of day, he could mean “I want to go home” or “Are you going home?” When asked “who?” he pointed to the person at the elevator. The time of day helped the message.

Who is the person talking with? This may also provide context clues. For example, imagine a person makes a happy “eee” sound. If he says it to his brother, maybe it means “tickle me”. If he says the same thing to his friend, it might mean “let’s go fast”. The partner can be a critical clue to understanding.

The combination of these factors may influence the interpretation of the message.

Even when a person uses language to communicate, context still matters. For someone who uses AAC, it takes time and skill to create a long message. It can be much easier to say one or two words. We may still need context to fully understand. The word “stop” might mean one thing on a long road trip. It can mean something different if the person is scared.

If you want to fully understand what anyone is saying, consider context. It can make the difference between confusion and “getting” the message.


Print Materials

Alt image for concept handout

Related Videos

While this video is not specific to people with complex communication needs, it describes how important context is in all of our communications.

Deepen Your Understanding

Each type and instance of communication will have a specific context. Communication context will, for example, be different for a television broadcaster than for a door-to-door salesperson. A communications context can be thought of as the environment or human eco-system, in which communication takes place. Determining the context of a particular instance of communication involves considering the cultural, historical, psychological, social and physical factors at play.

Historical Context
The historical context involves the expectation of the speaker and the audience in situations that happen regularly or have happened in the past. If, for example, an individual does an annual sales presentation for a particular client there will, over time, evolve certain expectations about what will happen and how things will go. That does not mean that the same thing must happen every time, but the speaker should be aware of both their own historical expectations and that of the audience.

Psychological Context
The psychological context refers to the mood and emotions of the audience, as well as the speaker to a lesser extent. How the audience is feeling will have an impact on how the speaker’s messages will be received, and how they should be delivered. For example, if a speaker is making a presentation at a conference with several days of various speakers doing presentations, the psychology of the audience will be different in the morning of the first day than it will in the evening of the last day. The mood following dinner will be different than the mood right before dinner.

Cultural Context
Cultural context is one of the most obvious factors of communication, but it is also one of the most important. Culture relates to the beliefs and values of a group. The way material is effectively presented to a group of teenage boys will be different from the way it is effectively presented to a group of elderly women. The best way to present information to a group of Wall Street stock brokers will be different than the best way to present that same information to a group of California surfers. It is always critically important that a speaker understand the cultural expectations of the audience.

Social Context
Social context is a personal matter. It involves the relationship of the speaker and the audience and the expectations involved in that relationship. The way an individual communicates with his employer will be different from the way he communicates with a drinking buddy. The way a teacher makes a request to her students will be different from the way she communicates the request to her spouse.

Physical Context
There is a time and place for everything, and that is where physical context comes in. The physical context involves the actual location, the time of day, the lighting, noise level and related factors. A speaker at a political rally might shout, pound the podium and use inflammatory language to get an audience excited. At many political rallies, this type of behavior is expected. Doing the same thing with a small group of friends around a fireplace late at night would produce a very different reaction.

From – Beach, Justin. “Types of Communication Contexts.” Synonym, 27 June 2018.