Common Sense

During an argument I had with my roommate in my junior year of college, she yelled at me and said that I should use common sense. The context of our argument was that I should have declared my presence before I peeked inside her “room,” (which was the living room separated by a thin curtain from the rest of the space), to ask her if it was okay if I was able to play music as I cooked. The common sense insult got to me because I didn’t understand how that was common sense if we never spoke about our communication expectations. This comment has stayed with me since and has made me wonder, “What exactly is common sense?”

According to Wikipedia, common sense is the basic ability to perceive, understand, and judge things, which is shared by, i.e. “common to,” nearly all people, and can reasonably be expected of nearly all people without any need for debate. Some examples of common sense include taking an umbrella when the forecast says it’s going to rain, using sturdy shoes when going hiking or buying things within our budget. Those are things that hopefully people inherently know from either experience, observation, or being taught. But is common sense really correct and common?

In a blog post by Jim Taylor, an adjunct professor at my alma mater University of San Francisco, he writes that “Common sense is neither common nor sense.” Common sense is not common because many people would  do a multitude of things that are not good for them such as smoking cigarettes, eating junk food, or gambling. It should be “common sense” not to do these things because they are harmful, yet people do them anyway. In addition, he adds that common sense isn’t real sense if people define sense by sound judgment. Sound judgment is to unemotionally assess situations or circumstances in order to draw sound conclusions. Much of common sense relies on experience alone, and most personal experiences have clear limitations.

I agree with Taylor that “common sense” is not as common as people think. From personal experience, I’ve committed crimes against common sense such as drinking and driving though I knew the dangers, telling someone my whole day when they were expecting a one-word answer and walking home alone at two in the morning when I was drunk. I’ve also observed a lack of common sense when I see people spend money beyond their means, overeat even though they have diabetes, and not pay loans even though the loan officer is breathing down their neck.

In addition, I also agree that common sense is not necessarily sound judgment. Common sense is affected by experience, cultural norms, and upbringing. Take for example when my roommate screamed at me for not having common sense for not declaring my presence before I peeked inside her “room” to ask permission if I could play music. In my perspective, I felt I didn’t need to declare my presence because, from my upbringing, when people share a living space, they don’t have to declare their presence. My guess is that from her upbringing, even when people share a living space, they should ask permission to enter personal spaces. Another example is that common sense is affected by culture. In the Philippines, it’s common sense to take a roll of toilet paper when you go to the bathroom because there is none. In the United States, most bathrooms have toilet paper so there is not need to carry one of your own.

I think the term common sense is misused and misunderstood. When people insult each other by saying they don’t have common sense, underneath I think their mad because they didn’t understand each others’ expectations as a result of a lack of communication or misunderstanding.

I’d like to think common sense is universal, but it’s not. What’s common sense to one person is not common sense to another. Instead of calling out the person for their lack of common sense, which often insinuates he or she is a blockhead, gently explain it to the person, which is  useful and not hurtful.

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