Street smarts refers to practical knowledge and skills that are often developed through intuition.
These are the skills that help people effectively navigate schoolyard social situations, solve everyday life problems, and avoid social faux pas.
People with street smarts may be very good at reading social cues, being aware of their social and physical surroundings, and being able to think quickly to resolve situational problems (i.e. think on their feet).
Street smarts is the opposite of book smarts, which is characterized by high levels of theoretical and academic intelligence, but is often accompanied by low levels of practical and situational intelligence.
Street Smarts Examples
- Having ‘Common Sense’ – The phrase ‘common sense’ is used to describe the ability to utilize sound judgment and make decisions that are practical and reasonable. People with street smarts identify what is ‘common sense’ in situations.
- Ability to Blend into a Crowd – The capacity to blend into a group setting mean the ability to adjust behaviors so they are in harmony with the people and circumstances that surround an individual. This ensures you don’t stand out like a sore thumb in social situations.
- Constant Awareness of your Surroundings – Staying aware of one’s environment involves taking notice of all that is occurring in the vicinity and being conscious of potential risks or hazards. You may notice that people without street smarts tend to find themselves wandering into hazards that the street smart people saw a mile off!
- Situational Awareness – If you have situational awareness, you have the capacity to recognize the social contexts of what’s going on. People with street smarts often develop this out of necessity: for example, they need to be able to read the situation to avoid stumbling into a street fight.
- Ability to Learn Social Cues Quickly – The ability to read social cues includes the capacity to read subtle signals that can help you learn how to navigate a situation. This might involve reading non-verbal cues and using them to understand who’s the boss, who to approach for help, and so on.
- Willingness to Stand your Ground – Being willing to stand your ground is often required on the streets so people don’t walk all over you. There are times when you need to be assertive. But you also need to know when to step aside to avoid danger. The nuanced ability to know when to do what is an important part of having street smarts.
- Projecting Confidence / Not Showing Weakness – In “the streets”, weakness is quickly identified and exploited. Street smart people are aware of this so they develop the ability to project confidence in social interactions. This is primarily a self-protection mechanism.
- Not Making yourself a Target – Not making yourself a target means taking steps to avoid drawing unwanted attention. A street-smart traveler, for example, is unlikely to flash money around or wear clothing that makes them appear to be wealthy.
- Self-Defense Skills – Street smart people know that there isn’t anyone else around who is going to come to their defense. If you’re street smart, you need to know how to defend yourself because you know it’s the smart thing to do.
- Ability to Read Non-Verbal Communication – Reading non-verbal communication is a part of reading social cues. It means that you’re very good at picking up on the signals sent through body language, facial expressions, gestures, and so on.
- Assertiveness – Assertiveness refers to the ability to express yourself without backing down. Youll express your needs, opinions, and feelings confidently when you know it’s safe to do so.
- Not Being a PushOver – Street smart people need to avoid being manipulated. They know people will try to manipulate them if they get the chance, so they’re highly aware of situations where someone is trying to take advantage of them.
- Working-Class Cultural Competence – An important part of street smarts is working-class cultural capital. If you don’t understand the culture of working-class people, you might walk into an urban environment and cause offense or come across as a fool.
- Minding your Own Business – Street smart people know when not to ask questions. If you put your nose into someone else’s business, you might find yourself in trouble. So, on the streets, people tend to keep to themselves.
- Code Switching – Code-switching is a concept associated with black Americans who have the skill of changing their behavior around white people, teachers, and police to avoid trouble. It refers to the ability to adjust your behavior and language to fit into different social situations.
- Knowing how to read a map
- Ability to navigate unfamiliar areas
- Identifying potential dangers early on to avoid them
- Knowing what to wear for each situation
- Being able to haggle
- Knowing how to spot a scam
- Knowing how to slip out of tricky situations just in time
- A quick wit
- The ability to think critically in practical situations
- Situational and observational skills
- The ability to improvise to find solutions on the fly
- Budgeting effectively
- Being able to find essential resources such as food and shelter
- Knowing how to maintain your composure in tense situations
- Being able to network
- Strong social skills
- Forward planning skills
- Improvisation skills
- Knowing what personal information to share and what to keep close to your chest
- Being able to fix things around the house (instead of just replacing it with a new gadget)
Top Traits of People with Street Smarts
1. Excellent Observational Skills
Perhaps the main trait that differentiates street smart people from book smart people is that street smart people tend to have astute observational skills.
For example, when they enter a situation – such as a party, a subway station, or a police station, they will intuitively take in a lot of details:
- The exit points
- The mood of their interlocutors
- The appearance of any potentially dangerous people
- Any moving objects that might cause problems
- Which people are gathering together, as a sign of social in-groups
A book smart person, but contrast, may find that they have to actively remind themselves to look out for these cues because they don’t have the intuitive ability to look for dangers or to read social dynamics.
Street smarts people are improvisers. They are always using signals around them – their environment and social cues – and allowing those signals to affect their next actions.
You’ll want a street smarts person next to you when you’re trying to talk yourself out of a tough situation. They’ll be able to come up with a good story that is based on an intuitive reading of their interlocutor and the capacity to appease the person they’re talking to.
3. Composure and Not Showing Weakness
People with street smarts often have the ability to maintain composure because they have lived experience of thinking on their feet. They tend not to panic because they know that doesn’t help.
Additionally, they may have developed strategies for concealing their weaknesses in order to protect themselves from danger and social threats. This can be especially true in situations such as the prison yard, where vulnerability or weakness may be perceived as a liability or disadvantage.
4. Struggling at Theoretical Work
While this is certainly not true of all people with street smarts, the street smart-book smart dichotomy holds that street smart people fail where book smart people succeed.
And while book smart people often find themselves in trouble in social situations because they misread social cues, they tend to be excellent at abstract thinking.
Street smart people, on the other hand, tend to think about practical implications and applications of situations. When it comes time for them to step back, be analytical, or apply abstract theories to concepts, they may struggle.
This is why many street smart people end up in blue collar working-class jobs, while book smart people end up at universities and in white collar jobs. The street smart people typically thrive doing practical and tactile work; the book smart people typically thrive behind a computer or with their head in a book.
Street Smarts vs Book Smarts
|Street Smarts||Book Smarts|
|Street smarts are acquired through life experiences.||Book smarts are acquired through formal education.|
|Street smarts are generally acquired through social necessity and just-in-time learning.||Book smarts are acquired through contemplation or, literally, reading books.|
|Street smarts tend to be developed through active learning – observation and interaction with their surroundings.||Book smarts tend to be developed through passive learning such as reading or lectures.|
|Street smarts are learned through intuition.||Book smarts are learned through explicit instruction.|
|Practical intelligence.||Theoretical intelligence.|
Street smarts and book smarts are useful metaphors for thinking about two different but equally useful forms of intelligence. However, I do find them to be somewhat stereotypical and binary and don’t fully reflect the complexity of human intelligence and behaviors (see also: dualistic thinking).
Nevertheless, through a social constructivist lens of learning, we can see that people who are raised in potentially dangerous situations – e.g. ‘the streets’ – may develop strengths with skills that are beneficial in their environments. As a result, working-class kids who statistically spend more time in non-supervised situations may develop better skills in rough-and-tumble social situations; whereas middle-class children may develop book smart skills because this is what their parents most highly value and reward.
Cottam, P. (2005). After-school time and the social construction of childhood. Masters Thesis. Lincoln University.
Davies, M. (2019). Street smarts and critical thinking: An examination of students’ voices on critical thinking. American Educational Research Association (AERA): Leveraging Education Research in a” Post-Truth” Era: Multimodal Narratives to Democratise Evidence.
Sadiku, M. N., & Musa, S. M. (2021). Social Intelligence. In A Primer on Multiple Intelligences (pp. 43-53). Springer, Cham.
Spinney, J., & Popan, C. (2020). Mobilising street culture. Routledge Handbook of Street Culture. New York: Routledge.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.