Context is Everything

Years ago I was sitting with my husband in a crowded restaurant. We were across the table from each other, chatting and enjoying our meal when from beside us a late thirty-something, early forty-something man with a copious amount of hair escaping the unbuttoned front of his shirt leaned forward and said loudly to his female dining companion, “my sperm swim with the ferocity of a great white shark!” That line has stuck with me for over a decade, and it is the only thing we could hear him say. So what was that all about? Was this a defensive response to a fertility concern? Was this a bold way of promising future procreative success? Could it have been the punch line to a joke or a quote from a play? The line itself is wonderfully entertaining even without a bigger story, but over the years as I have remembered it what really strikes me as interesting is how easy it is to create a story with very little substance and how quickly we react without always understanding the context within which that reaction occurs.

Sometimes we can only hear part of what someone is saying to us, maybe because of the ambient noise in the room or because we are engaged in doing something else, maybe because of our history with the person and the emotion we bring with us to the interaction. Whatever the reason there are many times in all of our lives where we don’t get the whole message or we hear just a part out of context with the whole. That’s not something that can be avoided and it’s fine so long as recognize the problem. But more often than not we react to the piece we heard based on the story we create to provide context, understanding or justification for the feelings we already have.

How often does someone say something to us, something innocuous on the surface or even perhaps totally neutral if we heard it said anywhere else, but coming from that person, at that time we know it means something much bigger, more complicated, triggering? And we react based not on what we heard, but on what we understood those words to mean and on how those words made us feel. We create a context for ourselves that may or may not accurately describe the situation or allow us to engage with the people around us in the way that we say we really want to engage.

What if just for a day we got really quiet with ourselves and decided to take a three second pause before responding after anyone spoke to us? If we know we are not allowed to respond immediately then we just listen; we can hear the story that someone else is telling us rather than the one in our own head.  We can ask questions, we can seek clarification, we can consider but it gives us the room to understand the context in which they are speaking, and that ultimately will let us better understand how we feel, how we think, and the stories we are busy creating.

I won’t ever know the whole story about the man and his ferociously swimming sperm. I suppose that at the time I could have leaned over to their table and asked but that seemed like a bit of a breach of etiquette. Instead I will remember that line as the key to a lesson I need to practice about asking for more information when I need it, and being careful about deciding what is or is not true when I only have a small piece of the big picture.

9 thoughts on “Context is Everything

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