Beyond Words

In ‘Philosophical Investigations(1953), Ludwig Wittgenstein, a renowned Austrian philosopher whose family history reads like a melodrama, introduced essential concepts related to communication.

Mr. Wittgenstein established that a word could only be understood in a specific context: If shouted in a restaurant, ‘Water!’ could indicate that someone is choking; in a loud bar, that a customer is thirsty; in a building, that there is a fire. ‘The meaning of a word is its use in the language.’

It follows that effective communication only occurs when the context is well-defined. There is a parallel with contextualism, a philosophy stating that context determines the truth-conditions of knowledge; and with art where context affects the aesthetic experience.

It is all about context. And yet the media lack a great deal of it. It is proven that the few words making up headlines carry more weight than the contents of the news article itself. Void of any context, large-capped words such as ‘lockdown’ related to China, ‘nuclear’ and ‘gas’ to Russia, or ‘inflation’ to the Fed lead to misguided conviction and action. The fire brigade keeps walking into restaurants and bars while glasses of water are brought to buildings on fire.

As businesses embrace videoconferencing, a significant part of the physical, social, and cultural context is lost, which impairs communication. Researchers have demonstrated that original artworks were liked more and found more arousing, interesting, and better remembered in the museum than in a computer-simulated version. Correspondingly, the limitations of virtual meetings are well-documented. Mr. Wittgenstein would be horrified.

Unfortunately, this context-flattening trend is happening at a time of growing diversity in the business world. In the absence of a full context, the room for interpretation is filled with bias-tainted assumptions, thereby creating a significant hurdle for communication and harmonious integration.

More generally, coherence between words and context supports the clarity and power of messages. ‘Lack of context’ is identified as a key reason for failed communication in large enterprises. If not embedded in a specific context, corporate purpose statements carry little value.

As firms further engage with their stakeholders, parameters such as media, audience’s background, language tone, location and time, décor, dress code, agenda, and food menu provide some invaluable context fostering clear and effective communication.

Consider the role of creative and art directors in movies or magazines. They help audiences appreciate the full meaning of words by creating an entire world around them. The need for such contextualization skills in business may have never been greater than today.

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