Whose Common Sense Is It Anyway?

When encountering others with divergent environments, we fail to recognize differences in formative experiences. This underscores the need for empathy in an interconnected world - the ability to understand life beyond our own perspective amid varied realities.

Maffee Wan April 2024 · 10 min. read


In today’s increasingly globalized and connected world, it may seem like physical and cultural distances between people are shrinking all the time. With the prevalence of international travel, immigration, and technology bringing the entire world online, common assumptions are that knowledge and understanding of other cultures is expanding rapidly.

However, this surface-level impression of greater connection can often mask deeper ongoing gaps in cross-cultural awareness and empathy. While technologies like social media, video calls and online translations have certainly improved our ability to learn basic facts about other societies, they have not necessarily led to true understanding of differences in everyday life experiences and cultural mindsets.

Our lived experiences and common sense perspectives become deeply ingrained from a young age based on where we grow up. Further, preexisting knowledge gained beforehand shapes these localized frames of reference. It is easy to assume our inherently subjective mindsets apply universally due to this combination of upbringing and preconceptions. When encountering others with divergent environments, we fail to recognize differences in formative experiences. This underscores the need for empathy in an interconnected world - the ability to understand life beyond our own perspective amid varied realities.

Diverging of “Common Sense” in Perceptions of Dryers

An example of diverging “common sense” can be seen in perceptions of using clothes dryers. While they have been routinely used for decades in North America and Europe, dryers only recently became widespread in China within the past 10-15 years. As a result, Chinese users approached dryers differently than those more long-accustomed elsewhere. For instance, if a dryer debuted with a "silent mode" feature, it would understandably be viewed as beneficial by Americans and Europeans based on louder dryers forming expectations over time. However, Chinese users lacking such extended experience might find little distinction between loud or silent modes since noise levels have not influenced their sense of normalcy. This underscores how technological familiarity shapes views of what constitutes value or necessity over time in culturally diverse ways.

Diverging of “Common Sense” in Payment Methods

Another example highlighting different technological norms across cultures is payment methods. In China, QR code payments through WeChat Pay and AliPay have become the normative way to pay for purchases over the past decade. As a result, Chinese users are so accustomed to making payment scans using the dedicated apps that the native QR scanning capabilities in phones are rarely used. This differs from habits in Western markets. The widespread preference for WeChat Pay and AliPay scanning presents challenges for developers hoping to optimize built-in camera payment features for the Chinese user base. Since customers expect integrated wallet functionality from familiar platforms, added QR features may see little traction compared to platform-based payment options ingrained through regular use. This highlights how localized technological adoption shapes user behaviors and industry expectations in diverging ways internationally over time.


Our default outlooks are heavily colored by the inherent subjectivity of living in a particular culture and set of circumstances from birth. The diverse array of alternative perspectives that truly exist in the world will always surpass any knowledge gained from tours, TV shows or social networks alone. And these invisible barriers of differing “common sense” can foster tension, frustration or conflict if we assume ours should apply universally without consideration for others.

Developers, researchers, designers and marketers would be wise to truly consider the localized lenses through which their users view the world. Collaborating directly with audiences in their local environments and gaining nuanced cultural insights can help reframe assumptions. User and field testing should account for variability in how common attributes may be interpreted differently. And messaging should emphasize locally relevant priorities over attributes only prized through a distant cultural lens.

While global exposure opens our minds, the complexity of individual lived realities remain profoundly shaped by circumstances of upbringing. By cultivating empathy, understanding and appreciation for these subjective differences, we can leverage closer international ties to foster shared progress on our own terms instead of others'

Next time when you say “common sense”, ask yourself “Whose common sense is it anyway?”

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