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Common Sense

When common sense is not right.

Try to name an example of when common sense would have been the best course to follow. Certainly, you can. Every one of us has a good story about someone not using common sense. (If you’re short on examples, try The Darwin Awards or People of WalMart.) In general, following the advice of common sense is usually best practice, but not always.

By definition, common sense is not best or wisest, but merely common, meaning it occurs more often. Common sense is the collective set of norms, mores, and good advice to which statistically most people adhere. If we asked 10,000 people if lighting fireworks indoors was wise or not, probably some idiot would say yes, but most people would have the sense to say no. So common sense (e.g. the consensus of the majority) usually serves us well, keeping us out of dangerous and/or embarrassing situations.

However, the mob is not always right and occasionally an uncommon sense is superior. Common sense is what separates the majority from the idiots and geniuses.

Image of common sense along a Bell Curve graph

An Example

When I was in high school, my dad sent me to pick up a large load of wood mulch at a nearby landscaping supply yard. He let me borrow his truck and trailer, which I had driven only a few times. As I was returning home on a four lane highway with the huge load of mulch in tow, the trailer began swaying back and forth, causing the truck to fishtail. As an inexperienced driver, I resorted to my common sense and hit the brakes. To my surprise, this actually made the situation worse. The truck and trailer swayed back and forth even harder. Pushing the brakes did nothing. I was completely out of control, being pushed sideways down the road at 45 MPH. The truck and trailer eventually whipped around completely and came to a stop in the ditch, narrowly missing a mailbox and light pole. The rear bumper was bent up and I was shaken up, but very little damage was done.

Obviously, my common sense had failed me, so later I asked my dad, who has driven with a trailer many times, what I should have done in that situation. He replied:

Slam on the gas.

His answer seemed crazy. Hitting the gas in an out of control vehicle was contrary to everything I had been taught about driving, but he explained the reason this would work. When I hit the brakes, the weight of the loaded trailer had pushed against the hitch, lifting the back tires of the truck up slightly. Since the tires were not well connected to the pavement, my brakes no longer worked very well. It was like pulling the hand brakes on the front wheel of a mountain bike while going full speed. To stop the trailer from swaying back and forth, I needed to get it moving in the right direction. The trailer needed to be yanked forward into a straight line again. Stepping on the gas would stop the swaying action.

That bit of uncommon sense held the essence of true wisdom. I felt like I was the Karate Kid and my dad was Mr. Miyagi unlocking the secrets of “paint the fence” and “wax on, wax off.”

“Show Me” Scene from The Karate Kid

Lesson Learned

When venturing beyond the confines of the common sense domain, knowing which end of the bell curve you are entering into can make all the difference. Hitting the brakes is almost always the right answer, but sometimes the best thing to do is to slam on the gas. Having wisdom is knowing when to ignore common sense, proceeding though it may seem crazy. The wisest people often look like fools.

And wisdom isn’t lazy reliance on fortune cookie mantras for the right answer either. Wisdom is a ceaseless, persistent and active discernment of every situation. Or as Jackie Chan says in the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid, “Everything is Kung Fu.

If you’re not sure which end of the bell curve you’re on, sometimes it’s best to just keep quiet.

That said, what do you think? 😉

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Denotation vs. Connotation

Because of a recurring communication problem I encounter, I want to draw attention to the difference between denotation and connotation. Definitions de·no·ta·tion noun \dē-nō-ˈtā-shən\ The most specific or direct meaning of a word, in contrast to its figurative or associated meanings. con·no·ta·tion noun \kä-nə-ˈtā-shən\ The set of associations implied by a word in addition to […]

Because of a recurring communication problem I encounter, I want to draw attention to the difference between denotation and connotation.


de·no·ta·tion noun \dē-nō-ˈtā-shən\

The most specific or direct meaning of a word, in contrast to its figurative or associated meanings.

con·no·ta·tion noun \kä-nə-ˈtā-shən\

The set of associations implied by a word in addition to its literal meaning.

The Problem

When attempting to articulate an idea, carry on a conversation, or express a nuanced thought, I often find others mistaking the meanings of the words that I use. Sometimes the listener becomes upset, indignant or angry for what they believe they have just heard me say. In response, I often become frustrated because the words I used to express myself were carefully chosen based on their definitions or denotations, yet the listener has heard me say something else (sometimes something completely antithetical to my intent) because of unknown associations or connotations they have attached to those words.


Let’s say I’m speaking with nice fellow who loves his connotations and I use the words ‘completely ignorant’ to describe myself in regards to something like… carburetor intake valves. This might elicit a sour face from the listener and a comment like, “You’re not dumb! Don’t be so hard on yourself.” I then have to spend the next ten minutes, trying to use only words with no more than five letters in them, explaining how, though I may not be an idiot, indeed, I am completely ignorant about carburetors and wouldn’t know one if I saw one. Unfortunately, the listener has made two errors.

  1. He thought that I was beating myself up because he misunderstood my use of the word ‘ignorant,’ meaning ‘unknowledgeable or uneducated.’
  2. He then responded by misusing the word ‘dumb,’ meaning ‘lacking the ability to speak’ when what he really meant was something like ‘stupid’ or ‘foolish.’

Use Your Words

This form of miscommunication is very common. It happens with all sorts of words, for all sorts of reasons. I have witnessed breakdowns of this nature so many times, that I am beginning to believe it is one of our fundamental human struggles. Misuse and misunderstanding of the denotation of words is often the primary cause of our frustrations with others and ourselves. At the heart of understanding each other is the necessity for all of us to use proper words that mean what we intend to express ourselves and similarly for all of us to understand the words that others use to express themselves. In short, we should say what we mean, mean what we say, and hope for others to do the same. Though we shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t.

When you get a chance, pick up a dictionary and peruse through the thousands of words it contains. You might be thinking, “Who does that?” Right. Well, I do and have done so ever since I can I remember. I also obsessively read the encyclopedia (an addiction now fed by Wikipedia) and can recite all sorts of facts that probably aren’t useful on a practical level. So, I may sound like a geek (I’ll own that), but we have a rich linguistic history full of words developed by our ancestors that they have passed on to us. We now have the chance to use these powerful tools to communicate with each other and future generations.

Isn’t that exciting?! Go ahead and roll your eyes, then let me know if you agree or disagree in the comments. Do you have a good anecdote involving miscommunication and word meanings? Please share so we all can enjoy an lol together. Remember: No grunting! Use your words.

“Communication Breakdown”

How about Led Zeppelin performing “Communication Breakdown” live in 1970 for your viewing and listening pleasure?