Context cues and the limits of possibility

Benjamin P. Taylor
3 min readOct 25, 2021

Someone I know asked directions in Dublin. Receiving them, he followed up ‘can I walk there?’

‘To be sure I suppose you could walk anywhere’

The way we understand the context of our actions shapes our possibilities.

Once you know about context cues, you will start seeing them everywhere.

And there are big implications.

A ‘context cue’ or context marker is something in the environment which alerts you to *what the context expects of you*, what is appropriate behaviour.

> Dogs ‘bow’ to each other to show that they are just playing.

> When you attend a major court, you usually have to walk up steep steps, into a building which overwhelms human scale; it’s like turning your eyes up to God as a lowly supplicant.

> To see my doctor, I must: first call his servants; be offered an appointment within his schedule; attend in good time, present the proper papers to his gatekeepers; await his pleasure and availability with the other plebs in the waiting room; be called (at his convenience); approach the audience chamber; knock upon it; be granted entrance; and be asked to take my place upon the secondary seat before his throne, where I see he has the proper Doctorly clothing, the bigger seat, and exclusive access to the computer, the source of power.

> Peter Block calls the annual review ‘that courtly ritual where I see my underlings and let them know two things: I own you, and you’re insufficient’

> to become a student at Oxford University, I had to ‘matriculate’ — demonstrate my compliance with their rituals and language by attending a ceremony where I had to wear ‘subfusc’ (white shirt and white bowtie, dark suit, black trousers, gown and mortar-board hat). I died my hair pillarbox red…

Other examples: people react differently to a scene on the street and in the theatre (but if you suddenly realise you’ve been watching street theatre, your framing changes); other examples include taking a placebo, an air raid alarm, and a handshake before a boxing match.

‘We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us’ said Winston Churchill; later generations remember ‘we shape our tools — and, thereafter, our tools shape us’. As a special educational need teacher and adviser, my mum often used the phrase ‘settings have plans for their inhabitants’.

Being aware of context cues gives you power. It suggests both how to behave and the expected limits to behaviour, it reveals power dynamics and expectations.

It shows the worn paths and tracks, or the designed framing. It’s up to you what you do with that. On online garden discussion groups, the most frequent question is a photo with the caption ‘is this a weed?’

And the answer is always ‘it depends’.

What are your favourite examples of context cues?