This post is the first in a series I will start featuring called Readers’ Choice, where I write about subjects my readers have suggested.
Being “street smart” is a term we don’t really stop to examine. And no, it’s not just something idiots say after bombing the SAT. It’s actually a very valuable set of intellectual skills that everyone should be equipped with at least to some extent.
And yes, it’s more than just knowing the bus schedule.
If you Google “street smarts” it gives the definition as, having the experience and knowledge necessary to deal with the potential difficulties or dangers of life in an urban environment.
Compare this to a person who is “book smart” and is able to learn concrete concepts and apply them. In other words, someone with book smarts can memorize and regurgitate information–which certainly has its functions.
However, a person with street smarts has honed their ability to both assess their options, and figure out how to solve or get out of a problem. More important, they can do this on the fly.
Take for example the character Charlie Kelly from one of my favorite shows It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
This guy is the epitome of a street smart individual. As part owner of an Irish dive bar in a rough section of Philadelphia, Charlie is the man that keeps things running.
Although he is illiterate and can only write in his made-up version of hieroglyphics, Charlie is the go-to guy when it comes to navigating through conflict.
So why is Charlie so good, and what can we learn from him?
Charlie is aware of his surroundings.
Whether he’s hanging out with his bridge people (as in the structure, not the card game) or traveling through the city sewer system, Charlie is always aware of the dangers that lurk in any situation, and he comes prepared.
Like when he hears the sound of water and knows the sewer is flooding–what does he do? Strips down and holds his clothes above his head. That way when he gets back to the surface, his clothes won’t be dirty. Genius!
So, like Charlie, when you know you’re going to be somewhere if-y, do your research, know exactly where you’re going and have an escape plan if things go wrong. This could be as simple as knowing the location of a gas station you can run to or how to apply a Krav Maga style hammer fist to a dude’s face.
Charlie has people skills.
Whenever Charlie encounters someone less than caliber he knows how to talk to them without getting into an altercation. Whether it’s the mob or a hostile drug dealer, he knows how to play his cards right and avoid taking a beating. Unlike his friends Mac and Cricket.
If you ever encounter someone shady and they try to talk to you, say “hi,” be polite, but don’t invite conversation. Don’t show fear, otherwise you’ll seem like an easy target.
Charlie knows how to blend in.
Mainly it’s because he’s poor and never buys clothes. He prefers to patch up his old stuff with a needle and thread–another valuable skill.
But you and I can learn from this. If you’re ever going to be in a rough neighborhood, try not to stand out. Don’t wear your nice clothes. Avoid name brands and solid colors as it might be construed as gang wear.
And ladies, keep the boob-age in check.
Charlie knows how to play it cool.
Bums, meth-heads, muggers. You name it, Charlie’s seen it. And probably served it a beer or two. Charlie shows no fear, and neither should you.
On the mean streets you may run into some shady people doing shady business. You may accidentally witness a drug exchange. What’s worse, the dealer might see you witness his sale (which happened to me once). What do you do in this situation? Play it cool.
Try and look like you’ve never been so bored in your life. Parading prostitutes? Don’t care. A mugging? No big deal. Car jacking? Meh. Just an everyday exchange in my neighborhood.
That’s the kind of attitude you need to have. Don’t make trouble.
If you want to be a good Samaritan then memorize the perpetrator’s features and call the police when you are in a safe area.
Having an understanding of the sort of people you’ll be encountering is essential. Obviously social norms vary from place to place and it’s up to you to gauge the area or person and act accordingly.
Based on my research, I’ve concluded that the most important aspect of street smarts is a deeply engrained set of people skills. It’s not just knowing how to get away from danger, but also knowing who to call when you need something. Need your car fixed on the cheap? I got a guy I trust. He’ll give you a deal. Plumbing problems? My cousin’s got a friend who’s a plumber. He’ll take care you.
Ideally it’s best to have a bit of both worlds. You need the yin and the yang. Having a combination can help you handle difficult problems, even in the workplace. By having a bookish understanding of the concepts and applying a little street smart creativity, you will probably stumble upon some “outside the box” solutions.
And it also doesn’t hurt to know the bus schedule.