Baby, It's Cold Outside' - reflections on the significance of context

I enjoy reading Vanity Fair. Apart from being a bit too attached to images of starlets in lingerie, it often strikes an appealing balance between the thoughtful investigation of the news and the more sensational headlines regarding the rich and famous.

Its most recent contribution to investigative journalism has been a reflection on the history and current fate of this piece of light entertainment which won an Academy Award for best original song in 1950.

Ranked by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers as the 22nd most played song ever, and attracting versions from performers as diverse as Dinah Shore and Michael Bublé, it seems this catchy song is now consigned to the waste bin of the politically incorrect.

Searching the many You Tube versions of the song uncovers a forest of negative comments like ‘And you liberals wonder why Trump won'. Vanity Fair reports that the recent Chicago Tribune piece about the song ‘got an avalanche of negative comments and hate e-mails.’

In fact this is a great example of a piece of work which has outlasted its creators and the context in which it was born as it has been, adopted and reinvented by successive generations. In the process, the context in which the work was created has been left behind - replaced by the social views and values of successive generations of its audience.

Today the song has been caught up in the dialogue about misogyny and the shocking and insidious prevalence of sexual assault in the gender wars. It fails the litmus test for the politically correct.

This is a great example of how what happens in a particular context and frame of reference takes on extraordinarily different features and significance when it is transported and then subjected to scrutiny in a different context.

In 1944, Frank and Lynn Loesser were not famous. Part of the showbiz wannabe crowd, they were planning a housewarming at a New York Hotel. Their audience apparently expected to be entertained and Frank and Lynn, keen to provide something crowd-pleasing, came up with the duet that became ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside.’ It seems their audience enjoyed it and thought it was light-hearted fun.

So what’s the learning?

For me, as a professional navigating the conflict resolution space, the lesson is about recognising how significant context is in creating the frame for the assumptions we make about intention and purpose. Context is always in play and, when we seek it out, we are given access to a frame which helps us to question our assumptions and figure out if this one is worth fighting about. If it is, context is the catalyst with which we help our clients to close the gap between intention and reception.