Context matters

My neighbour grew a year older last night, which means I didn’t get much sleep. My eyes crossed over trying to read and I ran out of peaceful stuff to listen to, so I landed up reading old blog posts about functional vs object-oriented programming, dynamic vs static typing…

And it reminded me of something I thought about while trying to choose a new pair of hiking shoes for rainy UK conditions and an upcoming trip[1] . Ten years ago while getting seriously into trail running for the first time, I found countless blog and forum posts arguing for and against waterproof shoes. The older, more confident voices seemed to come down on the side of no that’s silly, they’ll just take longer to dry, rather use light mesh.

This seemed convincing to me, and living and running in the relatively dry Cape of South Africa, meshed with my experience. Living in Stockholm made me wonder, but I could never afford to get too scientific about the matter (Gore-Tex is expensive stuff). In the US, I hiked and ran all over the place, but generally had the luxury of timing it to the weather. In Spain: Barcelona is dry, and the Pyrenees can be timed.

Now I live in the UK. Runs include mud and rain, desirable destinations include Wales. I’m still running in meshy trail runners, albeit with more ground clearance and tread, but I’ve finally caved on the question of waterproof shoes. And it made me wonder how many of those forumites were just missing each other’s context and talking past each other. Our personal experience is so convincing, and we really really struggle to imagine ourselves into other people’s shoes (ahem). So-and-so in Arizona literally cannot imagine standing around in a drizzly bog for ten days: why would anyone even hike in those conditions! And yet here we are, on our way to Skye to do just that.

So we talk past each other. Unable to imagine what rainy bog could lead someone to write an enormous pile of class factories, or an indecipherable one-liner ending with )))))). Often there is some context that we’re missing. And if not, non-obvious incentives will explain a lot: make a good story, learn a new language, break in some boots, make hiring easier/harder/more fun, mislead a boss…

[1] go back probably the La Sportiva TX5 Low, to complement my TX3’s, if you care.