Taken in Context

by Karen A. Bellenir

Recently, a young man told me about his encounter with a piece of written communication. He wanted to purchase an item in a specific retail establishment. As he approached the store's front door, a large sign greeted him. It said, "Service Animals Only."

The version of the tale I heard went something like this: "So I dropped my hand from the door. I examined my hands. My feet. In my heart, I knew that I was not a service animal. I was just a human. I didn't know what to do. I peered in through the window. I could see other humans inside. One person was at the cash register. Someone was actually selling her something. None of the employees seemed to be enforcing the rule. I couldn't even see any service animals. So, I figured, 'What the heck.' And I opened the door and went in." The narrative ended with a successful purchase.

I laughed along with the storyteller. And, yes, he knew he was being absurd by pretending to interpret the meaning of the words in a literal way that ignored the cultural context in which they occurred.

Any American out for a shopping expedition in our day would immediately recognize that the sign's terse three words were supposed to indicate that people should not bring their pets inside. Some stores, especially those that sell pet-related items, welcome a variety of animals along with their owners. Others, especially ones filled with fragile or fur-unfriendly merchandise, take a different view. They might even wish they could entirely bar non-humans. But they can't. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that service animals be allowed into all establishments that provide goods or services to the public.

This cultural context clarifies the intended meaning of the sign in a way that a literal understanding of its words cannot. If the sign survives for a thousand years of cultural transformation, and someone living generations hence digs it up, future readers may find themselves confused. Without access to details regarding the message's original setting, these time-distant people face a high risk of drawing erroneous conclusions.

Students of the Bible also often stumble over similar situations. Some of the Bible's passages are perplexing, and scholars argue over what the phrases may have meant within their native cultural context.

The original version of this article appeared in the March 2016 issue of Observations: A Pier Press® Newsletter. You can access the archived issue here, and if you're not already a subscriber, click here to sign up. It's free.