Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Dying Art of Common Sense

As I walked into the gas station, I saw a young man peering at the instructions on the pump with a blank expression as he repeatedly poked the same button. Each jab at the panel produced a loud beep, but no actual gasoline. Finally he gave up and headed into the station with a look of frustrated dejection. The attendant inside repeated the instructions, which sounded pretty basic to me: “Press the credit button; insert your card; and then enter your billing zip code.” Yet after hearing the instructions (twice) the customer went back outside and still couldn’t gas up his Honda. As the attendant headed outside to help the clueless customer, I heard him mutter under his breath, “I coulda sworn they told me when I was a kid that reading is FUNdamental…” After about three seconds, the attendant was coming back into the store shaking his head. He looked at me and said, “You should write something about that: the dying art of common sense.” Okay, Abdullah. Here you go.

I laughed off the comment at first, but the phrase stuck in my head the rest of the day. The eloquence of it belied a more glaring truth: common sense really is a dying art. We’ve become a society that needs a warning on coffee cups that the contents may be hot. I certainly hope the contents are hot--that’s kind of what I’m paying for.

My favorite warning was on a box containing a new toaster. In three languages it warned that the toaster inside was not intended for use in or under water. Which is a shame, since I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the midst of a bath and had a sudden craving for some fresh, crisp toast.

I think part of the decline in common sense is the increase in lawsuits. Corporations became afraid of finding themselves on the receiving end of class action lawsuits, so they began catering to the consumer public as if they were dealing with especially dim-witted five-year olds. There’s a difference between warning someone about an unknown danger, and pointing out what should be common damn sense. As a result, we’ve lost our ability to think for ourselves.

The only way to save the dying art of common sense is to think for ourselves. Consider the consequences of your actions, and respond accordingly. Take the time to read the instructions fully before deciding you’re smarter than the engineers and professionals that designed whatever IKEA piece of crap you’re putting together. And for crying out loud, use your turn signal—we’re not mind readers.

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