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.