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Math at the Deli Counter

The deli counter at the grocery store sometimes offers a poignant glimpse into how the public engages with mathematics.

Whenever I order a fractional quantity of meat or cheese, I prepare myself to manage confusion. When a blank stare lingers at “three-quarters of a pound of ham”, I’ll follow up with “point seven five”. I’ve heard “One-third… What is that?” more than a few times. And a deli employee once asked me if I wanted my two-thirds of a pound of cheese in two bags. Usually my deli experiences go smoothly, but there are some employees with whom I know to skip fractions and immediately go to decimals.

None of this bothers me; if anything, it reminds me that fractions really are one of the first walls people hit when learning mathematics. And it increases my empathy for those who obviously weren’t helped enough when they first hit that wall, and still struggle to get over it as adults.

I’ve also witnessed math-shaming in this situation. “Yes. Point seven five. Three-quarters is 0.75. You don’t know what three-quarters is?” As rude as this behavior is, I can’t help but sympathize a little with the shamers themselves: what mathematical experiences have they had that makes them feel the need to use math to belittle others? Sadly, I think I know at least part of the answer to that question.

It’s important for those who of us who see math as a source of pleasure and power to remember that, for many, it can be a source of confusion and, sometimes, shame.


  1. Paul Bourget says:

    Great article to illustrate the need for strengthening numeracy skills during formative years as well as sensitise people who feel competent in math to help some folks understand rather than use tactics that make them feel superior to others. Using the decimal representation as you did helps the person save face and also make the connections between fractions and decimals.

  2. Sheila Krilov says:

    Decimals often confuse as well. I once bought 91 cents-worth of postage stamps, gave the clerk $1.01, and was told I was giving her too much.

  3. Shecky R says:

    This reminds me of a different problem I see more often these days than I did when I was younger, where you hand a cashier some pennies to make the change-back easier, but all it does is confuse them; i.e. you give them $5.03 for a bill of $4.78 so you can just get a quarter back, but it flusters them.

    • MrHonner says:

      I definitely run into this situation, too, but I can’t say that I notice it’s more prevalent now than it was years ago. As with what I wrote about above, this sort of thing reminds me that not everyone has the same relationship with numbers that I do, which is something I wasn’t even aware was possible until a certain age.

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