In Chinese, we can distinguish students, or even teachers, in the ivory tower from those who have entered the real world, infused with challenges, unspoken rules or norms, and complexities, using the term "社会人", which literally translates to "social men" and is the opposite of "读书人" or "intellectuals".

They are unnecessarily adults, and it often implies that they have been through the school of hard knocks in the real world or workplace and hence are more threatening and difficult to deal with and often have some street smarts.

Any equivalent words or phrases in English? Here are some I have found, but am not that satisfied with: 1. Worldly individuals. 2. Members of society. 3. Working professionals. 4. Wily old foxes. 5. Seasoned professionals/operators. 6. Societal insiders. 7. Urbanites.

Personally, I prefer 'worldly individuals', but its opposite carries a sense of spirituality and religion rather than academia.

Their behaviors? They are very adept at navigating complex social or professional situations, sometimes using cunning or manipulative tactics. They are not easily fooled and know how to work the system to their advantage. Furthermore, they might be slick or overly pragmatic, prioritizing self-interest and practicality over principles.

I think 'wily old foxes' might be the closest phrase, but I am unsure if it is the best. How do native speakers express this concept?

  • Does this answer your question? english.stackexchange.com/q/302495/399034 Commented Jun 10 at 3:39
  • @MatthewJensen Wow! Thanks! It's a very relevant answer! So, I can say 'streetwise guys'? Commented Jun 10 at 4:39
  • 2
    Your list of possibilities have widely different meanings! 'Gangsters' and 'rowdies' suggest a criminal or antisocial person. Commented Jun 10 at 9:37
  • In American English, "rowdies" is a synonym for "hooligans"; and "worldly" has a sense that is the very opposite of "spiritual". The latter is true also in British English.
    – TimR
    Commented Jun 10 at 9:43
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    It's not clear what you mean by putting "tortured" in quotation marks. Are you translating something like "hard knocks"?
    – TimR
    Commented Jun 10 at 9:55

2 Answers 2


A phrase which matches your description is "man of the world"

someone who has a lot of experience of life and can deal with most situations

This is not very common in modern talk but does turn up a lot in literature and other writing. It does not, however, imply any criminal or rough aspect.


Since you're trying to draw a contrast between such men and those in Academe's "ivory tower", you could say that these men have been to the School of Hard Knocks (AmE, BrE) or the University of Life (UK and Australia).

Such "students" have typically not pursued education beyond secondary school, although that is not a necessary condition. You could say something like "I went to college but I learned far more valuable lessons in the school of hard knocks afterwards."

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