Throughout my employment in the maritime industry I have encountered frequent usage of the term “common sense.” I currently work on towboats on the Ohio river and have had the term leveled at me much less frequently here than while still decking on tall ships. It seems that work boats are much less prone to elitism and swaggering egos than anything made of wood with some canvas, sticks, and string attached. These components foster, at least in my experience, the need for people who are otherwise unremarkable to bludgeon those less knowledgeable over the head with their arcane skill set and nautical background. While this is being done, the term common sense is frequently invoked. I have often heard it said that decking on tall ships, and the skills requisite to do so, are “common sense.” This is a problem much less frequently on work boats, but it does still happen.
Over the course of my last hitch I worked with one of the captains who has used the “all of this work is common sense” accusation to imply that I, or other deckhands, were lacking in some inate ability common in the entire human populace because I did not understand something he was instructing me to do. That being said, this particular captain has been working on tow boats for thirty eight years. This prompted a few thoughts about both the explicit, and nuanced cultural definition and usage of the term common sense. I believe that individuals in maritime culture misappropriate the term for the purpose of self aggrandizement. Let’s start with some definitions.
Common: (adj) 1.) Belonging to, or shared by two or more people. 2.) done by many people. 3.) Occuring or appearing frequently. 4.) not rare.
Sense: (Noun) most applicable definitions being, 1.) Capacity for effective application of the powers of the mind as a basis for action or response. 2.) Sound mental capacity and understanding typically marked by shrewdness or practicality.
These definitions are taken from the Merriam Webster Dictionary which also contains a discussion of the term common sense. In this section it is stated that the term common sense, “suggests an average degree of such ability without sophistication or special knowledge.” Note my emphasis on without, and special knowledge. Maritime culture takes at face value a definition of common sense that simply smashes two words together, making no allowance for a nuanced standpoint that stipulates that common sense does not include “sophistication or special knowledge,” whether derived from a degree from a maritime academy, ten years working on tall ships, or thirty eight years working on tow boats. This simplistic rendering of the definition of common sense conflates all tasks involved in working on boats to common sense. I think in part this is due to the seeming simplicity of many tasks performed aboard boats. Stopping a nine barge cut while double locking looks simple. But, the first time you try it and realize that you are attempting to kill the inertia of 13,500 tons of coal and steel with what is essentially a big ass string, makes the complexity and challenge of the task apparent. Aside from face value simplicity, I think maritime workers use the “no common sense” attack to make themselves feel superior, probably due to a wide range of personal and social insecurities. This behavior sadly, propagates insecurity in the victim and is a really vicious cycle which needs to be broken. Given commensurate training and experience I could perform the job of any of my superiors, past or present, as well or better than they do. A fun supporting side note here, Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers discusses something he calls the 10,000 hour rule. The basic tenet of this being that any task or skill set has to be honed for about 10,000 hours for an individual to be considered an expert at it. I still do not have 10,000 hours accrued decking on tow boats. I would wager that Mr. thirty eight year captain does many times over.
How “Common” is boat Knowledge?
If my exploration of definitions and word usage in the Maritime industry didn’t convince you I will also explore just how common boat knowledge is, in order to attempt to justify a simplistic word smash definition of the term common sense. I could not find a nationwide study addressing percentage of the population employed in the maritime field. I did find a study like this for the population of San Diego California, which I will use as a sample. The 2012 population of San Diego was 1,322,553. Out of this total only 46,000 individuals worked in the maritime industry, which in this study also included jobs related to, but not performed on boats. This number is approximately 3.48% of the population of San Diego. Tall ships were not even included in this study. If applied to be representative of the whole nation (a model which is in no way statistically sound, sorry Dr. Williams.) this 3.48% population size shows that nothing about boats, or working on them is common. Even working in commercial sectors of the maritime profession is a fringe occupation. Working on tall ships places one in a miniscule sliver of an already infinitesimal population of human beings. Nothing about boats or working on them, especially tall ships, is common to the human experience in relation to work or mental acumen. There are probably more people in San Diego that think they are wizards than who work on boats.
Toward a more functional definition
Though I am in no way qualified to define words or phrases I am going to do so. I think someone must. More important than the definition is the pathology of behavior that underlies it. Redefine all I might, nothing can really be fixed unless people stand up to the perpetrators of elitism and swaggering ego that are so well served by the old definition, and misuse of “common sense.” Sadly I have seen few if any people stand up to this sort of behavior on boats. Anyway, enough of that, my definition is as follows
Common Sense: The ability to effectively understand concepts or perform tasks parsed frequently enough, and by a large enough portion of the human population as to be accurately described as common. Said ability can be created over time, is not necessarily innate, and cannot take into account special knowledge or training as granting one individual more “common sense” than another.
Okay, I feel better. Gotta run, I’m late for wizard practice.