Street Smarts

What would your rather be, school smart or street smart? I am lucky enough to say that I have a little bit of both. I am not sure if I can really equate street smarts to common sense, but I believe that to be street smart you have to begin by having common sense. I think you learn to be street smart by learning common sense the hard way.

Colombia is a country that is portrayed as dangerous and full of violence. While some of those reports are over inflated and at times misleading there is true to some of the insecurity in the country. There are a lot of people that are living in very precarious conditions. Some are simply thugs; some are people that need to steal to survive. Living in an environment where you have to always be alert changes things about your world perception. The Unites States is no different. There are places where people struggle or chose a life of crime. There are neighborhoods where you also have to watch what you do and how you do it.

The big difference between the US and Colombia is that there are pockets of innocence all over the US. There are plenty of communities where the “Pleasantville” atmosphere still lives. Is this a false sense of security? Or Are their communities really that safe? I am not sure, but I believe that in today’s age, everyone can do with a little street smart.

Is it something that can be taught? I don’t know. Let me tell you a little story of how I learned to be street smart. Before I moved to the US I had a fascination with baseball caps. Here in the US they are both cheap and attainable, but in Colombia they were kind of a hard to get accessory, especially if they were team licensed. I was about 12. I was painting the fence in our front yard when a couple of guys in a motorcycle approached the fence. I was wearing one of my baseball caps. The guy pretended to ask for directions and kept on lowering his voice so I had to get closer… I wanted to help him out, so I kept on getting closer… when I got within an arm length he reached for my cap and took off. At the time I felt safe, I was behind the fence inside my own front yard, but I still got mugged. That thought me a valuable lesson about talking to strangers even in my own house.

I also believe that knowing street smart also encompasses being able to talk to people from all different backgrounds and social statuses. Being able to roam around different social circles has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I attribute a lot of it to street smarts and respect. Knowing what to say and what not to say can open door for you everywhere you go.

I’ve had plenty of people make fun of me for the use of the word Sir. I use it quite often during conversation specially when I don’t know a person. I also use it with my friends when I greet them. A lot of people from past generations still regard that as a sign of respect, even if some people from my generation might see it as a way to put myself down or kiss butt. I believe that my elders should be addressed as Sir or Mam in most situations.

There are plenty of other stories that I can tell you about learning lessons from just being in a tough environment, but would you really learn from them or do you have to live in a city to really learn street smarts? I think it is a good skill to have.

4 Responses to Street Smarts

  1. Mmmm…now you have me thinking. I guess depending on where one resides, it’s advantageous to be able to have both and employ them based on any given event. Some friends around my neigborhood sometimes refer to me as the “White” Hispanic guy because according to them, I speak “White”, whatever that means.

    Could it be because I often use big words when expressing myself and not slang. But I totally agree with your view that being street smart encompasses being able to talk to people of different backgrounds.

  2. I think that the best experience is real life experience. There’s just some stuff, in my opinion, that you can’t learn by word of mouth.

  3. Street smart implies knowledge gained from first-hand experience. School smart (aka “book smart”) implies knowledge acquired through careful study and learning by way of lecture from a teacher. However, I can’t help but wonder how many Americans actually *are* school smart.

    We send our kids to school for a mandatory 13 years of education. At the end of it all, many can’t even read. Some go on to college and graduate with advanced degrees, yet they cannot point out the United States on a map of the world. It doesn’t even stop there. Gaps in general knowledge are abound in America. Ask any random person a grade-school science or math question and there’s a good chance they’re so far removed from schooling that they cannot answer.

    So I ask, what would qualify one to be school smart? Certainly not a diploma or even a degree. What is the measure by which you determine it? I say that the only kind of “smart” is street smart. Let me explain:

    A professor who spends his days solving math problems is “street smart” in mathematics. The knowledge he retains is kept well precisely because it is in regular use. He may not know how to “blend in” and not be noticed in a rough neighborhood, but that is only because his “street smart” isn’t applicable. It’s too specialized.

    In America, we’re so used to being spoon-fed information on a daily basis, we have no reason to retain and use information that doesn’t apply to our current situation (or at the very least, doesn’t APPEAR to apply). Not only that, but the information we do retain can become out of date very quickly. The “street smart” lingo and appearance a person learns as a child will most likely not last. Just imagine a 60-year-old man dressing like The Fonz and calling people “square” and you’ll see what I mean =)

    What I’m getting at is that the culture of America is that of specialization. One of the primary cultural effects of this is information overload and the discarding of inapplicable knowledge. If one has hopes and dreams of becoming a basketball star from an early age, why would they be motivated to learn algebra? Especially when their parents can’t even help them with their homework! There’s no “hard lessons” in math. When you ask out a girl, she’s not going to test you with a polynomial before she says “yes” =)

    That sort of problem exists across the entire spectrum of human knowledge and “common sense” and it is only getting worse. What you and I would consider “common sense”, say, that the Earth is a hell of a lot older than 6,000 years might not be so obvious to someone else… Even though they had a thorough science education! All the knowledge that would lead a person to that conclusion was never retained. It was discarded as “unimportant”, “too complex to bother with”, or even worse, it was assumed to be a lie: A generation or three into a specialization society tends to create parents who distrust their education and they inadvertently (or purposefully) pass that on to their kids.

    The story, The Prince and the Pauper, famously adapted into a Mickey Mouse motion picture by Disney, illustrated another kind of school VS street smart. Both the Prince and the Pauper were street smart for their worlds, but when exchanged the two found that their “worldly knowledge” just wasn’t as worldly or common as they thought.

    In America, our culture evolves and changes so fast. I can’t help but feel sympathy for those who get lost in the shuffle. I still have a subconscious standard by which I measure a person’s “smarts” (we all do), but I’ve been trying to suppress it as much as I can. Much like your suggestion in your last podcast to find something other than a person’s skin color to associate with their mental picture in your head, I try to determine a person’s knowledge of a particular subject before I draw into a discussion. I try not to judge the person, but I will inquire about related details to determine if they are truly informed. It keeps me from wasting energy debating things when I can inform them in a more gentle manner =)

    For example: If a person tells me that carbon dating isn’t accurate, I’ll give them an interesting and seemingly-unrelated fact that can possibly help them re-think their conclusion… “Did you know that there are trees alive today that are over 4,000 years old?” “Did you know there’s a lake in Japan that has been depositing sediment on it’s bed twice every year on a perfect schedule for the last 100,000 years?” If they seem to believe what I’m telling them, I’ll throw out something like, “Carbon dating equipment is calibrated regularly against these things.”

    Whereas; I used to just start off with something like, “Carbon dating *is* accurate!” which isn’t effective and leads to confrontations. An understanding of why people don’t have smarts in regards to any particular “common sense” subject certainly helps in this regard. Heck, I used to think it was common sense that seat belts don’t just save lives, they also prevent you from becoming seriously injured in what would otherwise be harmless fender benders. Now I know better: Many Americans mentally relate seat belts as only applying in high-speed accidents.

    -Riskable
    http://riskable.com
    “I have a license to kill -9″

  4. Hey, You come across extremely smart. Ya! I’d hate to think you analyzed me and then discarted me in any conversation. Oh, boy, would I love to know how to use Algebra, but alas! I learned how to hold a job, raise children and stay married and become someone people can trust without being subjected to analysis.

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