Context is among the most essential aspects in human communication, and by and large, listeners base their interpretation of expressions of language and actions on their prior knowledge and wide range of contextual information. It is the context that gives meaning to the communication process. Even if we understand words in a language, it is difficult to fully appreciate meaning unless it is contextualized. The context can be email, television, with a friend, with family, a political campaign or a protest rally, a celebration, or a religious or social event.
Many communication scholars and experts affirm that it is the context of what is done or said that determines how that message is interpreted. Actions and words in themselves mean less outside of context. Joking with a friend is considered normal but joking with a grieving person may be considered being insensitive. Many conflicts, particularly in intercultural communication, tend to be associated with context. Hence, intercultural communication researchers, using the concept of context to understand people, have identified several “frames of reference” within which people construct and interpret “reality” and communicate or interact with others.
A frame of reference is a lens through which reality is perceived and filtered to create meaning or a standpoint formed through a complex set of criteria or assumed values against which measurements, understanding, or judgments are made. The six commonly identified frames of reference are psychological frame of reference, cultural frame of reference, social frame of reference, spatial frame of reference, temporal frame of reference, and historical frame of reference.
- Psychological frame of reference may refer to a set of parameters that define one’s mental schema.
- Cultural frame of reference may refer to a set of parameters that define one’s cultural bias.
- Social frame of reference may refer to a set of parameters that define one’s social bias.
- Spatial frame of reference may refer to a set of egocentric experience, environmental, and geographical parameters that define one’s interpretation of reality.
- Temporal frame of reference may refer to a set of transient parameters, such as space and a range of experience types that underlie immediate representations, which define one’s interpretation of reality.
- Historical frame of reference may refer to a set of parameters that define one’s historical bias.
Simply put, we make meaning of facts by placing them in some context, a frame of reference. Therefore, the meanings we make of facts are determined more by our frame of reference than by the facts themselves. Along this line of reasoning, all meanings are generated and constrained by the frames of reference. These frames of reference shape the communicators’ actions and words.