Context in communication refers to the environment or setting in which communication takes place, which includes elements like the participants, the physical setting, the psychological environment, and the cultural backdrop.
The context of a communication process shapes the meaning, interpretation, and effectiveness of the encoded messages transmitted between the sender and the receiver.
For example, we can use context to infer whether a phrase is literal or sarcastic, whether we should be communicating formally (e.g. in a job interview) or informally (e.g. among old friends) , and so on.
Contexts we can consider when interpreting messages can include: physical, temporal, situational, historical, socio-cultural, and social-psychological contexts. Each is explored, with examples, below.
Context in Communication
Note that many of these contexts overlap and aren’t completely different to one another.
1. Temporal Context
The concept of temporal context encompasses the timing of the message delivery and the sequence of events.
For instance, a message delivered at the wrong time might not receive the intended reaction, and can lead to misunderstanding or confusion. Just ask a comedian – timing is everything!
Likewise, understanding the chronology or sequence of communicated messages helps in deriving their contextual meaning, preserving the flow and coherence of the communication.
2. Social-Psychological Context
Social-psychological context refers to the climate and environment of a communication interaction shaped by interpersonal communication, relationships, status distinctions, norms, and roles.
The social status, power dynamics, and general sentiments between communicators influence their message delivery, reception, and interpretation.
Respect towards authority, friendliness between friends, adherence to societal norms and values, consideration of gender roles—all of these shape this context.
3. Cultural Context
Cultural context refers to the shared beliefs, values, norms, and behaviors of the people within the communicating group. The dominant cultural context in the situation will impact the communication styles expected in the situation.
This context carries substantial weight because people from different cultures often carry different communication etiquettes, norms, and interpretations. Therefore, if there are multiple different cultures at play, there can often be miscommunication due to cultural differences.
Each culture have their own gestures, pauses, conversational distance, eye contact, and many more unspoken rules, which greatly vary from one culture to another.
One key distinction is between high-context and low-context cultures:
- High Context Culture: High-context culture relies heavily on implicit communication and non-verbal cues, with meaning often embedded in the social context.
- Low Context Culture: Low-context culture emphasizes explicit communication, where meaning is primarily derived from the spoken or written word.
4. Physical Context
Physical context refers to the actual location and environment where communication takes place, and includes the presence or absence of physical stimuli.
This type of context has a significant influence on the communication process as certain environments and surroundings can directly impact how messages are sent, received, and interpreted.
The architecture, furniture arrangement, noise levels, level of privacy, temperature, lighting: each of these aspects shape the communication environment and its dynamics.
5. Social Context
hge social context refers to the societal structures and systems within which the communication occurs. This isn’t about cultural values but social rules, but the concepts are interlinked.
Society’s structures and systems could include family units, peer groups, organizations, societies, and even broader social-economic systems. The social context provides insight into the social roles and norms that shape the implicit rules of communication.
6. Historical Context
Historical context in communication refers to the background, circumstances, or events in the past that influence the understanding and interpretation of the present communication.
Messages are often interpreted through the lens of prior events and experiences, which impact the views and reception of the receiver. Historical context helps in understanding the origins and development of current communication and literature.
Without considering the historical context, communication risks misinterpretation, as messages can be tied to past time frames with distinct norms, societal behaviors, and expected reactions.
Read More: 21 Historical Context Examples
7. Relational Context
Relational context in communication refers to the established relationship and shared history between the communicators.
The history of interactions and the nature of the relationship between the communicators significantly affect the meaning extracted from their communication. In fact, the established rapport, goodwill, and trustworthiness based on prior interactions often dictate the manner of current and future interactions.
Relational context also affects how messages are presented. Friends will communicate differently than strangers, and long-term colleagues will communicate differently than newly-introduced workmates.
8. Functional Context
Functional context refers to the intended goal or function of communication.
The function can vary from giving or receiving information, problem-solving, decision-making, persuading, entertaining, expressing feelings, and so forth. This context will affect the method of communication used and the kind of content that’s conducive to achieving the intended goal.
Understanding the function of communication can lead to selecting the right communication practices to facilitate the desired outcomes.
9. Situational Context
Situational context refers to the specific circumstances or events that surround a communication act.
These circumstances can include factors like the event that led to this communication, the reason for communicating, and the immediate reactions required by the situation. It shapes the communication and its urgency, formality, and style.
Situational context is important in understanding the nuances of messages that can be lost without understanding the specific circumstances of the situation.
10. Environmental Context
Environmental context in communication encompasses the broader physical, social, and cultural environment impacting the communication process.
This can include the geographical location, cultural norms, societal structures, climatic conditions, and the available communication infrastructure of this environment.
Often, environmental context creates potential barriers or facilitators to effective communication, and understanding it can enhance the adaptation and effectiveness of communication strategies.
Before you Go
- To learn how to understand context in communication, visit my guide on context clues.
- To learn more about context, visit my guide to the different types of context.
- To learn more about communication, visit my guide to the different communication styles.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]