Have you ever experienced the frustration of someone quoting you out of context?
At the risk of taking words out of context (to reduce the number of words and, hopefully, increase clarity), let me slightly paraphrase Wikipedia: quoting out of context happens when a passage is removed from its surrounding matter in a way that distorts its intended meaning. It can be either intentional or accidental and typically takes one of two forms:
- As a straw man argument, frequently found in politics, it involves quoting an opponent out of context in order to misrepresent their position and make it easier to refute.
- As an appeal to authority it involves quoting an authority on the subject out of context in order to misrepresent that authority as supporting some position. [Quoting Out of Context, Fallacy Files]
It is also possible to distort or change the context information accidentally, simply not recognizing the change in meaning or implication.
Sometimes the context is wildly different, as in this example from I. Robot:
Out of context: “The machine knows all.”
In context: “I see that you instinctively follow that great error- that the machine knows all.”
Sometimes it is might be a little less obvious, as in this example from Anne of Green Gables:
Out of context: “I think diamonds would comfort a person for a good deal.”
In context: “Look at that sea, girls–all silver and shadow and vision of things not seen. We couldn’t enjoy its loveliness any more if we had millions of dollars and ropes of diamonds…” “I don’t know- exactly,” said Jane unconvinced. “I think diamonds would comfort a person for a good deal.”
No matter how obvious the message distortion, the intention and meaning – and understanding – is changed, hindering communication.
(Thanks to Daily Mayo for these two examples.)
Another example is the often quoted study that says 7% of your message is contained in your words, 38% is your voice and 55% is your body language. Consultants, speakers, trainers and many others often cite this study; (at least) one man prominently cited these numbers out of context in a TED talk. It sounds good, but the author of the study has expressed dismay that his results were taken out of context; he was measuring something very specific.
Two common sources of words taken out of context are political statements and Biblical quotations (e.g. money is not the root of all evil – the love of money is).
The problem with taking things out of context is that it not only distorts the meaning, it also compromises your reputation. If you are caught taking words out of context, you are less likely to be trusted or believed. This is harmful to relationships and your success. It calls your integrity and character into question.
If you are citing someone else, it is in your best interest to verify the context and get it right. If your goal is to refute the message, it is well worth the few extra minutes it might take.