A conversation I’ve been having a lot lately revolves around context – what it means, and why it’s a vital piece to solving the puzzle of life. Without it, I’ve been arguing, it’s very difficult to get good advice and to make sound decisions, no matter if we want to optimize ways of being safe every day or to improve other aspects of our daily lives.
Context is the acknowledgment that the world is complicated and that solutions need to take into account a person’s specific circumstances. Whether it’s a matter of physical attributes, existing skills, available resources, or simply physical and psychological environments, people come from many different places that aren’t just geographically unique from each other. The specific collection of characteristics that make you an individual and the exact location where you exist are all inputs that can demand different outputs from someone who has a different set of things in their collection. While some of those items may be changeable, they may not be changeable right now or without a lot of effort – effort that may not make sense because of the other items in play. When it comes to the problem of balancing pros and cons, costs and benefits, the ultimate outcome must be strongly personalized because nobody else lives in exactly your body, living exactly your life.
Many people giving advice on the Internet forget that their lives fit inside a specific mold and try to generalize what works for them to everyone else they run across. We’ve talked before about why that person might not be qualified to truly judge if something actually works, but even if they are, they might not remember that you are not them. This is especially true if you are in a community where there is a particularly dominant demographic, so many of the folks participating really are more similar than not. It’s easy in those cases to forget that even though the majority may be, say, an average-size man between the ages of 20 and 50, you are someone entirely different, perhaps a petite 67-year-old woman. In some ways, it’s a compliment that you’re part of the group and they forget that you might have some different considerations. But in other ways, it reflects a lack of attention and empathy – that you are someone else entirely and can’t, perhaps, rely on being able to power lift an attacker off you, or conceal a large handgun on your tiny body, or spend hours and hours a week training boxing and jiu-jitsu. They forget that advice needs to be personalized to what is possible for the asker.
At the same time, many people requesting advice on the Internet believe too much that their particular set of life characteristics are completely unique. It’s true that every individual is a special person who has no true twin who duplicates them in every way. However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t generalize parts of a person’s experience and match it up with a larger group’s. Not everyone who is a woman is exactly the same and not everyone who rents an apartment is exactly the same, but there are some broad things that we can say are likely to be true for a woman renter, especially if we can look at a group who is even closer to her demographically – perhaps in the same age group, income range, education level, relationship status, or type of geography. The odds are pretty good that while we might not be able to locate an exact match, she’s probably not going to be so singular that we can’t draw some pretty good conclusions about what might or might not work for her and her lifestyle. So there’s a balance necessary here, to understand that advice needs context, but context need not be so specific as to rule out any matches.
Regardless, it’s important to make sure that regardless of if you’re giving advice or getting it, that you pay attention to the context of the answers that are offered to you. That’s the true value of role models and communities who look like you, because they’ll understand the unspoken parts of you and be able to speak to concerns you didn’t even know you had. The trick is to ensure that what they tell you is not only well-meaning, but accurate. Cross-referencing them with true experts, no matter who they look like, helps, because they are skilled with the nuance required to understand what makes you and your life both unique and common, and therefore what kind of solutions will fit you best. There are many right solutions. That doesn’t mean there are no wrong answers, but there are many right ones – and the ones that are most right for you depend on precisely who you are. Just don’t compromise and try to make somebody else’s right answers work when they’re not the right ones for you.