Context is Everything

Where you come from (in every sense) determines how you see the world.


Listening to a radio broadcast the other day, I was reminded in no uncertain terms how important it is to pay attention to context when trying to gather the meaning of what a person is saying.

This was a call-in show on the topic of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan following last year’s earthquake and tsunami.

An American calls in.  He’s bright and enthusiastic.  He talks about how remarkably well the plant withstood both the shaking and the surging ocean.  The problem arose, in his view, only when the generators were knocked out by the floodwaters and the fuel could no longer be cooled.

This was a “minor problem” in his estimation, though one with major consequences.  Still, he enthused, this performance gave him every reason to believe the world should be doubling down on nuclear power.  We’re so close to having it figured out.

After I finished scratching my head and tried to put my judgment aside, it occurred to me that this call was a prime example of American optimism and our core belief in human ingenuity.

And, this was a statement made by someone who was 9000 miles away from the events he was talking about.  I wonder if he’d have drawn the same “we can do this” conclusion if the whole thing unfolded near Virginia Beach.

The Japanese response was much more subdued and fatalistic.  The key comment was “We need to be humble and accept what happened.”


I can’t imagine a clearer illustration of the importance of context.  How we make meaning based, literally, on where we come from.

This is not about deciding who has The Right Answer, but rather appreciating how we can see the same information and reach entirely different conclusions.  Also how we don’t all have access (i.e. choose to see) the same information, even when it is available to us.

Both have their “right” points, and neither tells the whole story.

And that’s why we have conversations.