Apparently it’s been around for a while; the dictionary says so…

I find myself using the phrase “common sense” more and more every day… to describe the basic tenets of customer experience and employee experience… but also to describe humanity in general. Unfortunately, as I do this, I actually question it more than I praise its use.

What happened to common sense? Did stupidity really take over? Did we forget about manners? Did we really all forget what we were taught as kids? Were we not taught these things as kids? Can common sense be taught? Or are we born with it? (I don’t think we were, but according to the definition in the dictionary – see image above – it’s a “normal native intelligence.”) Are there exercises to teach or to strengthen common sense?

Why do we have to post signs like this one? Why do we have to remind brands to do the right thing? Why do we need to tell companies to treat their employees right? Why do we have to explain that customer experience is important to the bottom line? Why do we have to remind companies not to tweet during tragedies and to not use those tragedies opportunistically? Why do we have to remind customer service reps that their job is to help people?

Yea, I’m more full of questions than I am of answers. I shake my head about this every single day.

So I started to search for an answer to my question, “Can common sense be taught?” I started my search at home. As you might already know, I have two young sons, and I can pretty much guarantee you based on this very unscientific sample size, that not everyone is born with common sense. I find myself saying, a lot, “Guys, use a little common sense.” And then teaching them that, before they react, they should consider the following:

  • Think before you act or answer.
  • Does it make sense?
  • Is it the right thing to do?
  • Would I want to be treated that way?
  • Is that what you’ve been taught?
  • Is that using good judgment? (Yea, they know what that means.)

And the list goes on and on. Every day. Over and over again.

I’m not asking for the Mom of the Year Award here. But I will ask, does every parent do that? Did your parents do that for you? Is that how common sense is taught? So I did a little research and came across a quiz on the Discovery channel’s website with some interesting facts that I think help us explain a few things, especially as they relate to customer service and the customer experience. The following items (in italics) are pulled from that quiz.

The Merriam-Webster definition of common sense specifies “sound and prudent judgment.” That judgment must be based on things that are common knowledge and established facts, either by the person making the judgment or by society in general.

So, is it not common knowledge or an established fact that a customer service rep or a frontline employee is there to help customers? Is it not an established fact that customer experience drives growth and profitability?

In order to have common sense, you need to know things and be able to make deductions (reason). For example, you know that stepping in front of a speeding car is likely to get you killed, so common sense indicates you shouldn’t do it. However, a 1-year-old doesn’t know that a speeding car is deadly, so he cannot act accordingly.

Great. Deductive reasoning is important to good judgment. Should this be a new hiring question, test, or criterion?

The brain produces emotions faster than judgment. The region of the brain that controls emotions reacts faster than the region that controls decision-making. The difference is just milliseconds, but it could be enough for an irrational response to something.

OK, now we’re getting somewhere. This is why the customer service rep made a snide remark when you got upset about something on your phone bill that you didn’t expect. Emotions first, judgment second. Think about how you can factor that into your employee training.

Common sense is meant to keep us safe and living “a reasonable way,” according to the Cambridge Dictionary.

I say, “Define reasonable.” I think we’ve moved into a circular argument here.

Common sense requires social interaction. Common sense is usually connected to universal truths. If you don’t have regular social interaction, you might not learn what constitutes common sense and how to use it. This is why very smart people who spend a lot of time by themselves might seem to lack common sense. 

Hmm. Does this mean we need to hire social butterflies? I think you’re not going to want to be on the frontline and customer-facing if you’re not social. I don’t really want my employees learning common sense on the job, do I?

According to Bruce Charlton, editor-in-chief of the journal “Medical Hypotheses,” people who lack common sense often have a high IQ. Charlton believes that a lot of people with very high IQs tend to ignore common sense (or learned cultural behavior) in favor of reasoning. This might seem smart, but Charlton believes it often leads to geniuses coming up with strange responses or behaviors.

There you go. Hire dummies.

Common sense is “fluid.” What was common sense in the 15th century might not be common sense today. Some ideas that used to be common sense have been since proved wrong and discarded. 

Makes sense.

What is considered common sense in one country does not necessarily add up to common sense somewhere else. If you live in a city, common sense indicates that you must look both ways before crossing the street to avoid being hit by a car. But if you grew up in a rural area, you might not look before crossing because aren’t used to dealing with traffic.

Makes sense, too. How will you apply that concept to your employee training programs? Your product design? Your documentation? The way you interact with customers?

Knowledge can help develop your common sense. The more knowledge you have about things, the more decisions become a matter of common sense. For example, if you know what poison ivy looks like and you know the unpleasant effects of topical contact with the plant, it becomes basic common sense not to touch it. A person without this knowledge can’t make this common sense judgment.

Aha, so it can be taught!

Common sense is all learned. Common sense in humans is based on learned information, even when it seems that it’s connected to innate reactions and senses. For example, you don’t put your hand in the fire because it hurts. This might seem like an innate sense (we’re programmed to avoid pain), but the truth is that until you put your hand i
n the fire for the first time (or somebody tells you why you shouldn’t), you won’t know.

OK, I’m definitely on the right track with my kids then. But for your employees, does this mean common sense training becomes a part of your employee onboarding and ongoing training? Read on…

Common sense can be partially taught to an adult. It’s possible to teach somebody common sense, but it would require exposing that person to a lot of “what if” situations and then explaining what the common sense response would be and why.

Is this part of “hire for attitude, train for aptitude?” Does common sense become part of “aptitude?” Are you prepared to teach your employees common sense? How much are you responsible to teach them, if they’re going to represent your organization? Should there be a “common sense test” as part of the hiring process?

I’m still left with a lot of questions. Would love to hear your thoughts, now that you, too, know a bit more about common sense.

The three great essentials to achieve anything worthwhile are, first, hard work; second, stick-to-itiveness; third, common sense. -Thomas Edison