Street Smart vs. Book Smart: The Art of the Backhanded Compliment

by Shannon Fox

Last month, I was sitting in San Diego airport, waiting for my flight to San Diego. There were a couple girls sitting a few seats of way, talking before the flight. I was working on some homework and half-listening to their conversation. I really perked up when one of the girls declared [in reference to an absent friend] “She’s completely book smart! Not at all street smart!”

As someone who has often been called book smart over my lifetime, I started thinking about what those terms actually mean and what we’re really saying when we apply them to someone.

From the online Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary:

Book Smart: having a lot of academic knowledge learned from books and studying, but not necessarily knowing much about people and living in the real world.

Street Smart: having the knowledge and experience that is needed to deal with the difficulties and dangers of life in a big city.

In contrast, I’m also offering you a definition of each word from Urban Dictionary, as a way to see what we’re really talking about in a cultural context.

The general definition of street smart is someone who is intelligent, has good common sense, knows how to handle bad situations, and has the skills necessary to function where they live (usually the ghetto or the streets). However, the term is usually used to contrast and compare with another term known as “book smart”.

The stereotype of a street smart person is someone who is intelligent and knows how to handle important situations in the streets but is not as well-educated academically. However, the stereotype of a book smart person is someone who is upper-class and well educated but less knowledgeable when it comes to handling important situations faced in bad neighborhoods and lower-class city areas.

The more extreme and negative stereotypes are that street smart people are unintelligent and incapable of achieving a higher education, while book smart people are naive, easily manipulated, and have bad judgment in bad situations.

Both stereotypes aren’t always true and any semblance of them are only due to different lifestyles and experiences.

As I listened to these girls at the airport, I felt bad for their friend who wasn’t even there to defend herself. People never seem to by shy about calling you street smart or book smart to your face, though it’s hardly a compliment. Whenever someone tells me I’m book smart, I usually smile nervously because I’m not quite sure how to respond. Backhanded compliments are difficult to navigate. They sound nice on the surface, but underneath, there’s venom.

The thing about being called book smart or street smart is that implication that to be one thing, you can’t be the other. You can’t be both book smart and street smart. And that’s where the problem lies. When you describe someone as book smart, what you’re really saying is that they’re not savvy, they’re not smooth, they’re naive, and would blunder into bad situation after bad situation. All they’re good at is reading and learning. When you describe someone as street smart, what you’re really saying is that they’re not academically intelligent, they’re not good in school, they won’t reach the upper echelons of society because they lack the brains to do so. All they’re good at is staying alive and negotiating their way through life.

You see how these labels create a sense of extreme limitation. If might be packaged as a compliment, but it’s not. And if you’ve ever been labeled as such, you know that neither of these is truly a compliment. Rather, an insult.

What’s wrong with being called smart? Who cares if you’re book smart or street smart? It doesn’t matter, right? To me, these labels have always had a consolation prize mentality. “Oh well, you’re not book smart, but at least you’re street smart!” As if we need epithets such as these to make ourselves feel better.

For writers, readers, and all good citizens of the world, beware. Writers and readers write and read as a means to understand people better. This is the way I’ve always felt. It’s not the academia I’m interested in, not trying to be scholastically smart, but in trying to understand. In calling someone book smart, you’re really undermining the whole pursuit and thrust of their lives. If you’re book smart, you can’t possibly understand what it’s like in the real world. But that’s essentially the point of learning. Likewise, if you label someone street smart, you’re saying that the only thing they understand is the street, that they should be left in the environment they best know how to handle, the street. The label might contain the word smart, but it sure doesn’t have a positive and uplifting message.

If I were to choose from the two, I would say I’m book smart. But I’m so much more than that. Qualifying someone with a label disrespects who they are as a person and everything they can achieve in this world. Every time you label someone, you lose a little more of the essence of the human soul behind it.

14 Comments to “Street Smart vs. Book Smart: The Art of the Backhanded Compliment”

  1. The Relationship Between Will Smith and Bridget Mynahan in “I Robot” dictates those kind of Characters… The “Book Smart”, and the “Street Smart”

    Great Film, Hollywood Plays on the “Book Smart” Contrasting the “Street Smart” on a Semi Regular Basis.

    But generally, by the end of the Film, both have met somewhere in the middle.

    In my experience, the Term “Book Smart” indicates someone who is knowledgeable via Books, but not so much with People. Like you say.

    Labeling is Never a Good thing, you’re right… It applies “Limitations” on a Person.

    My experience with the Term “Street Smart”, hasn’t been as Derogatory as “Book Smart”

    In my experience, “Street Smart” is a way of saying that person can “Take Care of Themselves”, Like you say… But I don’t think it necessarily indicates that that person isn’t Intelligent… Just not necessarily “Book Smart”

    In Hollywood, it’s used more that way. I would say “Street Smart” = Intuitive, Experienced and Wise… Where as “Book Smart” = Educated.

    The Stigma is that “Book Smart” People can often be “Alienating” to People who are less Educated. They’re not necessarily Innately More Intelligent People, Brain Function wise… It’s more that they’ve Applied their Minds to something Academic, and thus can Draw Upon that Knowledge should the Need Arise.

    Good Article…

    And the Fact that you “Wrote” This Article, says that there’s more to you than what you’ve Read.

    You are a Person too, and have acquired a bit of Street Smarts already in Seeing the Existence of these
    Terms, and the Affects they have on People.

    Growth, is Growth, is Growth… And we’re all Capable of it.

    There are People that Hide in Books, and there are People that Hide in the Streets… But the more we stretch out of our Comfort Zones, the more Growth we shall acquire as a Human Being.

    The More We Know… Meaning, Read, Experience Etc….

    The More We Know.

    And the More we try to Understand one another, the More Socially Connected we are, as a Species.

    Being Open Minded to all things, and possibilities, can be a very good thing… And is more than worth while to Strive for…

    Thanks for the Article Shannon


    • “There are People that Hide in Books, and there are People that Hide in the Streets… But the more we stretch out of our Comfort Zones, the more Growth we shall acquire as a Human Being.”

      I love that. Sooo much!

      • Lol, Cool

        I don’t think I’ve thought of you as “Book Smart”… Maybe more of a “Shy Intellectual”, but I could be wrong, Hee Hee

        Either way, you’re cool, and educated or not, you seem to Truly Love People… And Horses, Hee Hee… Not just Books

        Books just seem to Excite you, Stimulate, and Inspire you… which is very Cool


  2. Thanks for posting this. This issue is a bug-a-boo of mine. As a retired college professor, I heard way too often, “Those who can’t do, teach.” I found this insulting. I had lots of jobs in the private sector before earning my doctorate and choosing to teach, which, believe me, is doing something important that not just anyone can do well. You have to be book-smart and people-savvy to teach effectively.

    Yes, there are people who fit the stereotypes, but most people don’t. I agree with DJ, labeling people is bad form. You can’t judge a book (or a “book-smart” person) by its cover!

    • It’s a shame more people don’t see the value of teachers 😦 In my opinion, teachers are saints. I don’t think I could teach. Tutor probably, teach a class, no way.

      • I think that most people don’t value what other people do. Teachers don’t value the work of others–they often think their job is the hardest job in the world. All I have to do is watch roofers working hard on a sweltering summer day and know that teachers have it pretty darned good.

        It’s a matter of not being able to take yourself out of the center of your world and see other people empathetically.

  3. Hah I’m definitely street smart, barely surviving and navigating my way through life. I got good grades in school but have gone downhill since then. But I’m alright with it, I could be an absolute idiot. So there’s always a silver lining to everything.

  4. I agree- its more of an insult than a compliment to be called either street smart or book smart- it’s limiting.

  5. Yooo, I have been called “book smart” by so many people who take one look at me and judge me without even knowing me. I am also an Asian American so that stereotype goes more toward book smart. But my mom actually tried to compliment me by saying I’m book smart and I did not take it as a compliment. I also know myself way more than anyone else. I am not book smart. I am an intelligent being. I don’t learn through books. I learn through experiences and making mistakes. I am just naturally good at school and like to learn, but I am not book smart. It’s so annoying when people judge me and think they know me. They don’t. I have been me my entire life. I agree 100% with your entire post. It’s not a compliment, its a label that has more negative connotations than positive. It really does limit people. Just compliment someone by saying they’re smart or intelligent or knowledgeable – other adjectives, but don’t label them as book smart or street smart. 🤦‍♀️

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