Comments, In Focus

Social interactions: context is not random

A colleague of mine was telling me how she felt awkward speaking to her university tutor, who is a famous academic in the world of sociology. She left me to ponder whether a person’s place within social “hierarchy’”is the only factor in forming relationships with others.


Mabel Encinas


In  contrast to this, time ago, I observed a colleague of mine engaging with the headteacher of the secondary school where we worked. We were all stood there, eating sandwiches and drinking wine after a session at a teacher’s conference.

Both men were chatting freely, covering a number of topics, from the quality of the food to the day’s most important international news; their opinions on the coalition government (on which they differed), to the latest football match where both of them supported the same team. I remained silent throughout and observed.

For me, what was particularly interesting was the calmness my colleague adopted towards the headteacher throughout the encounter.

Several people approached them during their conversation but in general these approaches were brief and in some cases even rather awkward. My silence was evidence of the shyness and fear I so easily observed in others.

Making such observations, I have similarly seen the way a young woman of European background calls a middle-aged Afro-Caribbean gentleman, who collects the rubbish at the underground station, to throw a piece of paper in the bin. And I have observed the way in which an older gentleman of South Asian background, with a book under his arm, gives instructions to a youth with a Chinese accent, about how to get to the British Museum.

Feminists rightly say that personal relationships are political and in these interactions power relationships are established, which concern people’s social and personal backgrounds at the same time, backgrounds that are borne of their life experiences.

Conversations between human beings are not only limited to isolated exchanges of words.

The content and form that a conversation assumes are determined by who is saying what to whom, how, when, where and why. That is why the way we interact with others is governed by how we see ourselves in relation to the person with whom we are speaking.

This context is surely not something random.

Each context has a background diffuse with personal stories and experiences, which form part of our social relationships.

Both speakers’ stories will exhibit differences of  gender, ethnicity, social class, sexual preference, immigration status, skills set, and a whole range of differences which we assume conform with our identities. Perhaps it would be worth reflecting upon our daily interactions with others. We imagine the way we relate to others as set in stone, as if we were unable to alter it. Of course, making broad changes across the board requires collective action, working together and collaboration.

But, what if, in some small way, we were to change the way in which we related to one another in our daily lives? What if this person I were speaking to here and now were from my home town; what if she had gone to my primary school; what if she were dressed like me? Would I speak to her in the same way I am speaking to her now?

And so the question is, “can I engage with this person    in a different way?” There are some small things in daily life that we can change for the better. And in the end we are able to learn, which is why social contexts relating to personal experiences have a future.

(Translated by Nigel Conibear – Email: – Photos: Pixabay


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