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What are Street Smarts?

"Street smarts" can mean knowing how to navigate an urban area.
Someone with "book smarts" might be ridiculed for lacking "street smarts," or common sense.
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  • Written By: Dan Cavallari
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 16 April 2014
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Street smarts is a colloquial slang term referring to knowledge not obtained through higher learning or formal education but instead by practical life experience. In general, it involves using common sense to stay savvy and safe in real-life — or "street" — situations. The term has been used for decades throughout the United States, especially in regards to teens in urban centers. It is often used as a clear delineation between those who thrive in urban settings and those who do not, and can sometimes draw a line between economic or social classes.

The term is often used in conjunction with a criticism of someone who is "book smart," but has little common sense. The person's knowledge itself is not called into question; it is usually assumed or conceded that the person is reasonably intelligent in terms of cognitive ability and assessment, but in terms of streetwise ability or common sense, the person tends to lack certain skills. This assessment is often an insult aimed at the subject rather than a flattery of their skills as a "book smart" individual. Someone who lacks street smarts can find himself the subject of ridicule from those with common sense in social situations rather than or in addition to formal education.

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Street smarts can also refer to a person's instincts in regards to high-stress situations, such as navigating city streets via car, bicycle, or on foot. This includes not only knowledge of the urban center or certain locale, but also a working knowledge of how to move through the area safely and often aggressively. This may include knowing short-cuts, quickest means of travel, or even having contacts within the system — such as police officers, street vendors, locals, etc. Knowledge of the area or its history is not enough to qualify; the key component is its practical application.

A person who is street smart does not necessarily only know how to navigate an urban setting exclusively. The term may also be used to refer to social awareness and interaction, regardless of setting. Communicating well with peers and navigating through social circles can also fall under this category, particularly when dealing with the social circles of young people and high school cliques.

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Discuss this Article

anon268367
Post 4

Great comments. I have lived a bit of sheltered life since childhood. My folks sheltered me from pain and suffering, and later my spouse did the same. I am now having to gain fast "street smarts" and not fall prey to the environment around me.

Street smarts are very important to surviving just as much as having a good education.

anon129412
Post 3

@TimeTheorist: One without the other is a handicap in the adult world. Only success (not only financially, but also in interpersonal relationships, personal accomplishment of goals, personal happiness, etcetera) can be a worthy judge for determining those who have a sufficient balance.

TimeTheorist
Post 2

@astor - I know what you mean when you say that the term summons a certain image of practical knowledge for functioning within society. But I also think that the word, in its own way, implies that people with lots of education and "theoretical knowledge" often lack street smarts. Common sense is learned by everyone, educated or uneducated, directly through the experience of living in society. When someone claims to have street smarts, it often seems to me to be a way of judging those who have intellectual thought processes. I think the word is meant to simply describe common social sense, but the way people often use it seems to, as I said, detract from the value of the cognitive intelligence.

astor
Post 1

I've always thought the term "street smarts" conjures a good image for its definition and implications. It's another way of symbolizing a kind of knowledge that is not and cannot be learned through study of theoretical material (i.e. books). It is the knowledge of how to function properly in one's environment.

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