Context is King

12 Apr 2007|tommy

Last weekend, the Washington Post published an interesting piece about an experiment in culture. Joshua Bell, a highly-acclaimed concert violinist, put on a baseball cap and casual clothes and posed as a busker in the L’Enfant Plaza station of the Washington, D.C. Metrorail. His goal (or rather, the goal of the journalist who wrote the piece) was to see if morning commuters would stop and listen to his music.

Now this is an accomplished, highly-decorated artist playing extremely difficult musical pieces on his 18th century Stradivarius. And the end result of his 45 minute incognito concert? $32.17. And only a small handful of the thousands of morning commuters even seemed to give him a glance as they walked past.

If ever there was an argument for paying attention to context, this seems it. In fact, there are probably 3 areas where context is particularly relevant to this situation: context as a mood-setter, context as a truth-teller, and context as an empathizer.

As a mood-setter, context has pretty straightforward implications. For instance, in the context of an exalted concert hall, Mr. Bell’s music may be likely to get a much more positive, attentive reception. Imagine a more elaborate scenario (a lovely night out, lots of patrons dressed very nicely, a glass of wine or champagne) and the context takes on even more meaning. The experience of listening to the music is supported and enhanced by the peripheral details. So in this regard, the context in which one hears Mr. Bell’s music sets the mood for how it might be received. The venue and the circumstances all add to (or detract from) the experience of hearing.

Secondly, context can be seen to act as a truth-teller. My guess is that if you asked any of the morning commuters beforehand if they would notice a world-renowned musician playing beautiful, soothing music at the height of their morning commute, a number would say yes. How can one fail to hear the beauty? How can one’s ear not be captured by such an unusual and “cultured” moment? Yet, the truth is seen in the results; very few even stopped to listen or pay any attention. This reminds us of the importance of observing in-context, to learn what really happens in the give-and-take of day-to-day life. People don’t behave rationally, and even well-intentioned predictions of behavior often turn out to be wrong.

Finally, this story shows us context as an aid to empathy. In an April 11 NPR interview, Mr. Bell said that the experience of busking would make him pay more attention the next time he encountered a street musician. He indicated, in short, that the experience had given him a new respect for the difficulty of their jobs and the often poor or indifferent responses they get. Walking in someone else’s shoes – abiding in their context – is one of the best ways to learn what their experience is really like.

Context is crucial in understanding innovation, too. It’s really important that we move beyond just what people say to understand what they do and how they do it. It’s important for us to empathize with them, understand their processes and the reasonings behind their behavior. Without this first-hand information and experience, we’re left acting as the commuters who pass by without recognizing or valuing the beauty that’s right in front of them.

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