What’s a contextualisation cue?

I have recently attended the 111th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, a major academic conference spanning five days. I was fortunate to have been able to attend an outstanding panel celebrating the ninetieth birthday of John Gumperz, an eminent anthropologist and linguist. Gumperz is one of the scholars responsible for developing a research and analytic methodology known as ‘the ethnography of communication’, one of the primary methodologies I use in my research.

Ethnography of communication methods focus on analysing language use in context, taking into account such factors as: Who is speaking? Who is the audience? Why is the interaction happening? Where is the interaction located? Understanding such ‘components of communication’ reveals how we shape our talk based on the unique situation and context, and why sometimes we have difficulty making ourselves understood in the way we intend.

John Gumperz conducted a great deal of research in intercultural communication, from which he developed the theoretical concept of ‘contextualisation cue’, a central piece of interaction upon which much communication (and miscommunication) rests. A contextualisation cue is a component of communication which adds to shared understanding and meaning-making, and, if interpreted correctly by all participants in interaction, goes by totally unnoticed. When not shared, however, it can be a factor in misunderstanding.

Contextualisation cues exist everywhere, in all forms of communication. A prevalent textual example is an emoticon, commonly used in text (SMS) messages and increasingly seen in other forms of textual communication. If :-& is in a piece of text you’re reading and you don’t know what it means (the author is trying to indicate she or he is tongue-tied), then you may be missing a crucial bit of context and therefore understanding of the meaning of the text as a whole, as the author intended.

Other examples of contextualisation cues could be the raising of eyebrows at a certain word when you speak, using a pronounced ‘foreign’ accent in part of a sentence, or using slang associated with a certain social group (e.g., adding ‘innit’ or ‘yo’ at the end of a sentence if you normally do not use such a tag). Contextualisation cues are a fascinating and integral part of communication, and one of the pieces of discourse which I take into account in my analytic work.