There is No Such Thing as Common Sense

CDModel&BridgeOrganizations want to hire employees with common sense. Parents want to raise children with good common sense. Universities and schools want to teach our young people to have common sense.

The trouble with the concept is this: my “common sense” is not your “common sense.” What’s common sense to one person is not to another. For example, if a friend stumbles and trips but is obviously unhurt, do you:
  1. Express verbal concern, asking if they are ok?
  2. Pretend you did not notice, to spare any embarrassment?
  3. Make a joke, to lighten the mood and relieve any awkwardness?
  4. Smile or laugh awkwardly, to share the embarrassment with your friend?
Each of these responses can be “common sense” in different circumstances, in different cultures. What if an angry customer calls me? A “common sense” customer service response could include, depending on the corporate culture, national, ethnic or generational culture of the customer service agent:
  1. Doing whatever is within my power, exerting all possible avenues to make the customer happy;
  2. Apologizing and then educating the customer so that they learn how something works and won’t feel frustrated again the next time; or
  3. Telling the customer “no,” as what the customer wants is not part of the contract.

What does the dictionary provide us as the meaning of the term?

Common Sense
noun Sound practical judgment that is independent of specialized knowledge, training, or the like; normal native intelligence.
Origin 1525-35; translation of Latin sēnsus commūnis, itself translation of Greek koinḕ aísthēsis

With such a terrific definition, anyone would want to have common sense. Yet, what is “sound practical judgment” in the tropics (how to stay hydrated and prevent heat and sun stroke) is quite different from “normal native intelligence” in snow country (how to stay warm and find food when it’s cold). Common sense for accountants (income vs. payments needs to balance or be positive) may be quite different than that for sales people (invest now for payoffs later). Sound judgment for women is, fortunately or unfortunately, frequently different than that for men; common sense for a Baby Boomer is often remarkably different than that of a Millennial; and US American society is finally starting to realize that common sense (survival instincts) for a black person is radically different than that for whites.

Common sense depends on where we are, how we’ve been raised, and what knowledge is “common” or shared by members of our communities. Common sense is developed so that we can survive and thrive in the world around us. Thus, common sense is really “cultural sense,” common only to those who share it: those who share a given culture.

Common sense is really “cultural sense,” common only to those who share it: those who share a given culture.

How do we say “common sense” in some major world languages? Might that provide further insight?

     Key: native language, transliteration, “literal meaning”

  • In Arabic: الحِس العام, Al ḥes al ‘aaam, “public sense” or “general sense”
  • In Chinese: 常识, chángshì, or “general knowledge”
  • In French: le bon sense, or “good sense”
  • In German: de gesunder Menschenverstand, “the healthy human sense”
  • In Japanese: 常識, johshiki, or “everyday thinking”
  • In Russian: здравый смысл, zdravyy smysl, or “healthy wit,” meaning you must be crazy not to agree with it
  • In Spanish: sentido común, or “shared sense”

This is why “cultural sense” is a core concept in the Cultural Detective Model. You can see it prominently featured in the graphic at the top of this post, along the bottom edge of the circle. What does “cultural sense” mean, exactly?

Most of us act with the best of intentions on a daily basis. We perform our jobs in ways that we feel they should be done. We treat our co-workers in ways we feel reflect sound judgment. We deal with our neighbors in ways our native intelligence tells us is neighborly. We talk to our children in ways we believe will guide and motivate them, help them become better people. We put our common sense, our cultural sense, to use everyday.

Yet, all too often our actions are misperceived, and our customers, co-workers, neighbors and family members experience negativity in our behavior. They may get angry, frustrated, or disappointed with us. They may be confused about why we do what we do. That is because their common sense, their cultural sense, is different than ours. Their assumptions about appropriate behavior in a given situation are different than our own. Their beliefs about how the world is may differ from ours.

We all aspire to have common sense and to form teams and organizations with common sense. But it is important to remember that establishing shared “common sense” is an ongoing process. Miscommunication and misperception provide opportunities for us to better understand our own values and “native intelligence,” as well as to learn more about the values and native intelligence of those around us.

So, the next time you shake your head at someone’s behavior and wonder if they have any common sense, remember that their cultural sense may just be different than your own! It takes effort, but creating a “shared intelligence” or shared common sense provides a context in which all of us can work, live, and be our best. Regular use of Cultural Detective can help you achieve just that.

Part of the #MyGlobalLife Link-Up.

12 thoughts on “There is No Such Thing as Common Sense

  1. Everyday I heard my family, my colleagues, friends and girlfriend talking about “common sense”. Being “blended culture”, you have to struggle about your perception of common sense and family’s perception what I call, the 1st and real fight for your autonomy. Common sense and Authenticity, what a dilemma, doesn’t it?
    I, recently , have joined “Cultural detective” cd online, exploring this tool make me feel like a child who get an amazing game to interact with himself and others. Thank you to all of you!!!


    • Oh, Philippe, what a wonderful Christmas present you have given us! Thank you for sharing your excitement about CD Online. We are so happy if it can help you explore your Blended Culture identity, and be more fully all of who you are in this world! You are doing amazing things already. I trust this new tool will amplify that a bit more. Warmest of holiday greetings and best wishes for the new year!


  2. What a fantastic post Dianne! I love when I learn something new and I have been schooled today! I thought common sense was simply that – sound logic to seek a practical solution across a whole host of experiences. Yet, your definition of cultural sense is so much more applicable. Your examples clarify the need for this redefinition and demonstrate how our lived experiences reflect our logical thinking and practicality.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cool, Deb. So happy to know this resonated with your experience and brought new meaning into that experience. I always say, experience isn’t what teaches us, it’s the sense we make of that experience that is where the learning occurs. Happy to know this reordered your definitions a bit.

      Like you, I do love learning something new as often as I can. When I turned 50, I vowed to celebrate and seek out “virgin” experiences—ones that I’d never had before in my life. Nice to be a virgin periodically, again, in my 50s!

      Liked by 1 person

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  4. thanx, Diane, you provided great inspiration for my own post. Perfectly backed up with your research.

    I remember being back home with family in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia a year back. My older sister suggested that I get some new house keys made downtown at Mr. Minute, inside a large shopping mall called The MegaMall. I said, “Sure, no problem.”

    When I got home and handed the new keys to my sister, she asked me casually
    how much I’d paid for them. I told her and she literally freaked out. It seemed that I’d paid way too much to mint a new set of house keys (4 in all). When I reminded her that she hadn’t said how much they normally cost, she retorted with: “It’s common sense! You should know how much they cost!”

    I was ready to explode at this comment but I managed to restrain myself. My dear sister who has lived a safe and sheltered life all these years, never venturing beyond the city and family home where she was born, couldn’t possibly begin to conceive of anybody else’s notion of common sense but her own.

    Would it even make sense to explain that having lived abroad all these years, I had lost touch ……….. and was partly using the Swiss index of living costs to guide my purchases? Should I proceed to lecture her on the uniqueness of common sense, how it’s closely tied to one’s life experience and the cultural frameworks one has been immersed in, how common sense effectively varies across cultures ……………………….. just as ways of reacting to events
    and situations are guided by instinct bred in one’s dominant environment of immersion?


    • Your story resonates with me and, no doubt, with many of our readers, Christina. Thank you for sharing. I’m glad if you find inspiration here to continue your journey to build intercultural competence in this world. Glad to be on the road with you!


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  7. Common sense exists and there’s no doubt about it.
    Maybe your idea of common sense is narrowed to day to day scenarios which don’t really give a good consensus of what we ALL feel is right.
    The regards for humans life, true knowledge and belongings are all common to us (killers, thieves and liars are regarded the same accross cultures).
    Don’t even start with the bs that there’s an isolated town or two (or even millions) that don’t because if you are outside the “common” spectrum you cannot even claim you have common sense.
    Common sense is an idea for us humans from different backgrounds and idelas to come together to a consensus.
    I understand your point but common sense does exist. (Period)
    Common sense is our very way of defining what’s humanly right or wrong, just don’t mess with it because we have gotten to where we are because of it.
    Just think of statistics. Who are the outliers in this? killed 100 people would be the right outlier, who is the left? 0? 😂😂😂😂😂
    Such things were designed before we were born for a reason and they are rules (you cannot defy them).
    We go back to rules that define societies…
    If you kill everyone there’s no society.
    If you lie to everyone there’s no learning.
    A society without trust and without people do not exist anywhere.
    Mind you, specific cases like you must have the perfect job are not common sense but being the best at what you do is common sense (ask anyone)
    Conclusion: It’s complicated but common sense does exist is just that your view doesn’t see this. Common sense is an idea of all the humans coming together and creating a pact and denying it is not only dumb but also very dangerous.


    • I believe what you may be referring to are basic human rights. Yes, human rights should be universal; I can completely agree with and wholeheartedly support that. No to war, not to genocide, no to human trafficking and slavery, no to genital mutilation, no to gender and age discrimination. The reality, of course, is that human rights are sadly very far from “common sense.” Much of what you say I obviously disagree with. Criminals are not treated the same in every society, that is not a true statement, for example. I am sorry for the anger and righteousness I sense in your comment. I wish you peace and balance in your life, as I do for myself and everyone on this planet. Have a good one!


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