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Ask Mel: Making Sense of Common Sense

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ExpertsPost Category - ExpertsExpertsFamily LifePost Category - Family LifeFamily Life - Post Category - Domestic HelpersDomestic Helpers

What may be common knowledge to one person may be completely foreign to another…

In this edition of Ask Mel, our expert talks about how we can help eliminate any miscommunication between the employer and the domestic helper by understanding what cultural norms, practices and expectations both parties may deem as “common sense”.

Q: I’ve heard stories of helpers leaving a child unattended in the bath, or ruining their employer’s favourite shirt in the dryer. How do you handle these types of common sense issues?

Yes, those types of situations can be very concerning and puzzling. In fact, the “common sense” refrain is one of the most “common” phrases we hear from employers. They often use it when they are startled and confused over an unfortunate decision that their helper has made. Rooted in years of our own personal safety, hygiene awareness, or family values, many of us have a hard time fathoming how someone else could’ve gone through life without possessing a piece of knowledge that we may now consider instinctive.

Common Sense = Cultural Backgrounds + Life Experiences

My husband was born in Hong Kong and I was born in the States. When we first moved to Hong Kong, I made a lot of silly mistakes. Things that would be considered laughable or foolish by a local who had grown up with this culture’s definition of “common sense.” Navigating high-rise apartment living, speaking Cantonese, visiting wet markets, eating meats with the bones still in them, and receiving gifts without opening them were not common practices to me, even though I had grown up near the multi-cultural capital of America.

What may be common knowledge in one country may be completely foreign in another, and helpers often come from countries and cultures that are quite different from their employers. Additionally, a helper’s previous employer may not have had the same preferences or priorities, so a habit she was taught in another household may be completely contradictory or even offensive to you.

Did your helper leave meat out on the counter for hours? Maybe that was a “common” practice in her hometown so she doesn’t see the harm in it. Did your helper ruin a delicate shirt by putting it in the dryer? Maybe she didn’t grow up with a washer/dryer and she’s still a bit nervous to use yours, or maybe her previous employer instructed her to just put all of their laundry through the washer/dryer. Did your helper leave your child unattended for a few minutes to take the trash out? Maybe it was “common” and acceptable to do that in her community back home, where children don’t often have adult supervision every moment of the day and safety priorities vary. Different people. Different values.

Helpful Mindset: Switching from “She lacks common sense” to “I need to raise her awareness”

As frustrating as those moments are – and I have been on both the giving and receiving end of these knowledge gaps! – it may be helpful to move away from using the “lacking common sense” label, because it implies a permanent state of mind with no room for growth, which breeds discouragement for both the helper and the employer.

Sometimes our helper’s mistakes reveal an area of awareness that is lacking, a cultural value or family priority of ours that hasn’t become common to her yet. If we can view these situations as revealing a need to “raise her cultural awareness” or “teach her what we value,” then the outlook and results are a lot more promising.

We may find that showing our helper a YouTube video about pool safety, or talking to her about things that are sentimental to our family, or teaching her the “why” behind our family’s food preparation preferences, will help her to be better equipped for how we’d like her to handle herself next time.

After all, none of us were born with common sense. Someone had to teach us to hold hands when crossing a busy road, and that sneezing spreads germs, and what temperature a baby’s bottle should be, and how to use a rice cooker, and which words are offensive.

But put me in a different country, and all of those “common” things may suddenly be of no use to me. Or put me in a new company with a boss who has different values and priorities than my previous company, and I may need someone to teach me what may already be obvious to that particular group of people.

How to Increase Common Sense

If we start viewing the so-called “common sense” issues as “awareness” issues, we put an end to hopeless frustration, and realise that we can increase our helper’s competency by filling in the knowledge gaps for her. We can strengthen our working relationship by jumping to positive conclusions. Instead of thinking, “How could you NOT know that?!” we can say things like, “I realise you may have been taught to do this differently, but here’s how we do it / what we value, and how we’d like you to handle that situation in the future…”

Let’s teach our helpers our own personal norms, so that what’s common to us can become common to her as well.


For more employer-friendly advice (no judgment here, Mamas!), contact Melanie to schedule a private hiring session or to attend one of her helper management workshops. We’ve done both and can say they are definitely Sassy-approved!

© Arinahabich08 | - Bruschetta

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