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Innumeracy In Everyday Life - Mo's Journal
March 25th, 2009
09:35 am

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Innumeracy In Everyday Life
I stopped at a Dunkin' Donuts yesterday to buy coffee. As I was standing in line, the woman in front of me asked for 15 of their donut hole thingies (Munchkins, I think they're called). After the guy behind the counter clarified that she wanted "one five" and not "five oh" he told her she couldn't have that. "That not how we sell them," he said. "You can get 6, 12, 25 or 50."

"Well 12 isn't enough, so I guess I have to get 25."

Trying to be helpful, I interjected, "You could get 18. That's closer to what you wanted than 25 and it's enough."

She turned to the guy behind the counter to see if she could and he said, "No. You can get 6, 12, 25, or 50."

Still trying to be helpful, I said, "But if she gets an order of 6 and an order of 12, she'll have 18 and that's closer to what she wanted."

Ignoring me, he repeated, "You can get 6, 12, 25, or 50."

"I'll get 25 then," she said. "I'm sorry. I've never been here before; I didn't know."



ETA: Speaking of innumeracy, I'm often really dismayed to hear people - adult people, generally women - say in a totally offhand manner "Oh I never could do math" meaning by "math" basic number skills. They say it as if this were something of no importance whatsoever. I try each time (and fail) to imagine someone saying in that same "who cares" tone "Oh I never did learn how to read." Basic literacy and basic numbers skills are essential skills to be a functional adult. It's not a trivial matter to be missing either skill set.

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From:marag
Date:March 25th, 2009 01:50 pm (UTC)
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Oy. Did you actually bang your head against the nearest hard surface or did you just think about it?

I've had conversations just such as this and they make my head hurt.
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From:mofic
Date:March 25th, 2009 02:58 pm (UTC)
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Amazing how it can make your head hurt without even banging it, yk? To quote one of my own stories:

Scott contemplated banging his head against a nearby wall. After reflecting on the fact that he would probably have a perfectly adequate headache even without doing so, he decided against it.
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From:talktooloose
Date:March 25th, 2009 04:08 pm (UTC)
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Hey, that's the first Blue Beetle icon I've come across. I loves me some Blue Beetle!
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From:thinking_lotus
Date:March 25th, 2009 01:59 pm (UTC)
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apparently you can't combine orders, either ;-)
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From:executrix
Date:March 25th, 2009 02:15 pm (UTC)
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It sounds like "Five Easy Pieces," but with munchkins instead of toast...
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From:mofic
Date:March 25th, 2009 02:48 pm (UTC)
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LOL! I assure you I was unfailingly (I almost wrote "unflailingly" LOL) polite throughout the whole encounter.
From:fantasyenabler
Date:March 25th, 2009 02:19 pm (UTC)
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"Hello. Could I speak to an actual human being? Your recorded message isn't being very helpful. It seemes to be lacking in both logic and math skills."

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From:mofic
Date:March 25th, 2009 02:37 pm (UTC)
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But it's not just him. It's the customer, too. Not only couldn't she figure out that 6+12=18 but once I told her she checks with the counter guy to see if I'm right, instead of just saying "I'll have an order of 6 and an order of 12."
From:fantasyenabler
Date:March 25th, 2009 04:15 pm (UTC)
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That's just sad. People who can't do math are just asking to be taken advantage of by those around them.

I like to joke around and say that I can't do math, but the truth is what I'm talking about is the calculus I took in high school which I no longer remember in any coherent shape or form. I'm amazed when people say they can't do math and they mean basic computation. To my mind, that's very, very scary.
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From:talktooloose
Date:March 25th, 2009 05:05 pm (UTC)
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Here hesitation is not based on innumeracy, possibly. It might be fear of not following the "system". You are clearly a trouble-maker, with that mohawk and all.
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From:barenakedrachel
Date:March 25th, 2009 05:16 pm (UTC)
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Having read the rest of this thread after I commented, I now understand that your main concern here lies with a general lack of math skills... ahhh... I didn't see that. I just thought the cashier was being either robotic/uncreative or just plain lazy and that the lady was not asserting herself. It never occurred to me that it's entirely possible that neither of them actually understood what you were talking about! Good grief! Obviously I can't decipher what was really going on since I was certainly not there (several states removed!)... You know, I run into that, too. At least once a shift, I get a guest who comes up to the Customer Service desk where I am often scheduled these days to have me go over his/her bill. Actually, I'd say that 99% of the time, it's a woman. Venturing into racial and ethnic stereotype territory, I hesitate to admit that I almost always know what the matter will be about while they are still waiting their turn in line. The Indian women will want to negotiate price discrepancies... even ones of one cent... but they are sharp and calculating and know exactly what it is that they think their produce should have rung up per pound. The Caucasian women will will approach more timidly and say, "You know, I'm sorry to bother you, but I just don't think this added up right... I mean, I can't do math, but it just seems higher than it should be because I only bought a few things..." This is a very common pattern and it strikes me as odd. Have you ever noticed this difference between American women and non-American women?
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From:mofic
Date:March 25th, 2009 08:39 pm (UTC)
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That's interesting. I wonder if it's a difference in cultural status of number skills or something else.

When I was a wee lass, working in retail was a really good way to develop good number skills. You had to make change accurately and quickly. I remember my father practicing making change with me when I was a teen, before I went out looking for a job, because they expected kids to do that at the interview. But now with the cash registers that tell you the change, it's not such good practice...
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From:barenakedrachel
Date:March 25th, 2009 08:48 pm (UTC)
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It is still good practice to be able to make change because if you enter in the wrong amount given to you, then you're stuck with doing it on your own. I just count back, mostly to make sure the customer understands and sees that I've figured it out right because they get nervous about it sometimes... but I've had coworkers actually call me from their lane to ask me what to do or what amount should they give back, or even ask for a calculator... Yeah.

I don't care for math classes, but I do like working with numbers in real life situations, so even though I did poorly in math in school, I've had an easy time of it working with money.

I have no idea what makes the differences I've noticed between the American women and the Indian women I've observed, but generally the Indian women seem more confident about matters.
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From:barenakedrachel
Date:March 25th, 2009 03:16 pm (UTC)
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Wow... sometimes retail can be so robotic!
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From:mofic
Date:March 25th, 2009 03:19 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, but what about the customer who can't manage to ask for an order of 6 and an order of 12?

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From:barenakedrachel
Date:March 25th, 2009 05:01 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, that is odd! It's well within her rights to do that... plus you pointed that out to her clearly... You know, I come across a few different types of consumers at work. There are those who are out to get around every rule, some in between who will take advantage of an offer only after you assure them it's OK, and some who seem so meek and timid about asking for what they want. I'm mostly thinking about coupons... our store limits the number of coupons that they'll double per item. Let's say you buy five things of Tide and you have five coupons. The store's policy is to only double the first three of those coupons. Most people figure out that you can ring the fourth and fifth bottles up in a separate order and they take care of this themselves with little to no guidance. There are a few who DEMAND that we override these coupons and make them double because it's not worth their time to make separate orders, and then there are those who stand there and go, "Oh... my... well, it says I can't do that, so, um, what am I going to do? Oh dear..." even if I tell them that I can ring them up separately. They just look at me and they seem utterly lost. This is not quite the same as your donut hole lady but goes to demonstrate how some people just don't seem to get that they can still get what they want AND "comply with the rules" - rules which often seem arbitrary, but the stores put them in place and then discipline the cashiers for not following them - but I can almost always find a away around stuff to satisfy both the rule and the wishes of the consumer...

Out of curiosity, do you happen to recall if there was any significant price difference between the sizes they offered? Was it cheaper for her to get whatever amount she opted for (I forget) instead of getting two separate orders?
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From:mofic
Date:March 25th, 2009 08:41 pm (UTC)
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Out of curiosity, do you happen to recall if there was any significant price difference between the sizes they offered? Was it cheaper for her to get whatever amount she opted for (I forget) instead of getting two separate orders?

I have no idea what the prices were - I didn't look. Now I'm curious. And yes, that would have been a reason to get the larger amount, but it didn't seem to factor into what either the seller or buyer was saying. It was all about what number you're "allowed" to buy.
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From:taffimai
Date:March 25th, 2009 03:40 pm (UTC)
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Is it possible that the order of 25 was cheaper than an order of six and an order of 12 and that was why he reacted that way?
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From:mofic
Date:March 25th, 2009 03:47 pm (UTC)
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You know, that is possible and I didn't look at prices. But if that's the case, why wouldn't he say, "Well 25 is actually a better deal" rather than tell her that she can't get 18. I truly think he didn't get that 6+12=18 could be applied to this situation and neither did she.
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From:executrix
Date:March 25th, 2009 03:50 pm (UTC)
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Not such a recent problem, either--my mother used to be a junior high school teacher, and at least 30 years ago she said that one of her students was fired from McDonald's because she couldn't make change. I said, "but the register says how much the change is!" but the kid couldn't figure out how to assemble, say, 38 cents from a cash register drawer full of change.
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From:mofic
Date:March 25th, 2009 06:47 pm (UTC)
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That's pretty amazing! I'm always surprised when cashiers can't make change on their own - if they key in the wrong amount so the output isn't telling them how much to give, a lot of them don't know how to count up to make change.
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From:taffimai
Date:March 25th, 2009 09:16 pm (UTC)
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You can certainly read the non-verbals better, having been there. But if I'd been the cashier I might have thought "she doesn't want to pay more for 18 than for 25 and she seems like she's easily confused, I'm just going to tell her she has to get 25."

Also, there's this one study I quote at my friends who say that they "can't do math." The biggest predictor of student success in math among female students is not anything you might expect (zip code, household income, number of magazine subscriptions, etc.) It's the mother's attitude towards math. If the mother says that she "can't do math" the daughter is much less likely to succeed in the subject. Interesting, no?
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From:mofic
Date:March 26th, 2009 02:50 am (UTC)
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You may be right - I could have misread the situation. It certainly seemed to me that both of them just didn't get it. I will look at the pricing structure next time I'm there.

The study you quote is interesting and not surprising. Our kids are affected by our expectations...
From:(Anonymous)
Date:March 25th, 2009 04:11 pm (UTC)
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I totally take your point, but I think that his reaction, especially the way he pointedly ignored you, actually means that he was being unhelpful, not necessarily stupid.

Good service is not something that I expect as a matter of course, so I recognize and appreciate it when it is provided, and this strikes me more as an example of bad service than an example of someone truly unable to recognize that 6 + 12 = 18.

Intellectual laziness and refusing to consider creative options is how I earn a living, so I can testify as to how pervasive and widespread it is.

As for the 'I never could do math' throwaway line, you have another very good point... which I think is related to how many people despise themselves: it explains a lot about the life choices some people make and how they treat themselves and their bodies (of course, I mean people in a position to make these choices, not people who are so uneducated and beaten down that self-respect doesn't enter the equation).

It's lack of self-respect: which is why it's mostly women one hears saying such stuff. US society does have some serious problems, no doubt about it, because when I lived in Europe I never used to hear such trash on a regular basis. Then again, good service was a lot more rare. :|
From:(Anonymous)
Date:March 25th, 2009 04:18 pm (UTC)
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In case my wording doesn not make it obvious, I am not referring here to actual learning disabilities of any kind here, I am referring to how some people assume it is perfectly acceptable to say things like that, regardless of whether they are true or not, because most of the women I hear saying such things are accountants who do know how to add quite well with or without a calculator.

No I refer to the assumption that boasting about laziness or stupidity in public is acceptable or laudable or to be taken as a proof of false modesty.

Feh. There's a major difference between being aware of one's failings and boasting about one's laziness and the implicit insult to the listener in assuming we cannnot tell the difference is quite irritating I must say.
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From:mofic
Date:March 25th, 2009 06:48 pm (UTC)
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I refer to the assumption that boasting about laziness or stupidity in public is acceptable or laudable or to be taken as a proof of false modesty.

That's an interesting viewpoint. I've mostly looked on it as a view that - especially for women - numbers skills aren't important.

Do I know you, btw? Fine if I don't but sometimes people post anonymously because they haven't logged in or don't have an lj account.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:March 27th, 2009 04:58 am (UTC)
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Oh yes, sorry I've been stalking you for a while, I just never log in to LJ. I am totally irresponsible when it comes to such things!
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From:mofic
Date:March 27th, 2009 10:31 am (UTC)
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Ruth?
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From:mofic
Date:March 27th, 2009 10:32 am (UTC)
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Maybe not Ruth. I can't see Ruth saying "Feh." So who are you, dear stalker?
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From:talktooloose
Date:March 25th, 2009 05:06 pm (UTC)
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I told this story to three people at lunch. It travels well.
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From:mofic
Date:March 25th, 2009 08:08 pm (UTC)
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LOL! I live to serve.
(Deleted comment)
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From:mofic
Date:March 25th, 2009 07:36 pm (UTC)

Re: Once again, you gave me something to think about...

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Does it bother you as much as me that it's not 6, 12, 24, or 48 instead of 25 and 50?

That's exactly what my colleague/work husband said!

See, your words do impact the world around you!

That's gratifying to hear. But explain the icon to me (or show it to me, or both). I don't know what "J2 Math I can follow" means.
(Deleted comment)
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From:mofic
Date:March 27th, 2009 10:36 am (UTC)

Re: Once again, you gave me something to think about...

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Thanks for clarifying. I'm vaguely aware of the fandom - and know it's quite popular - but didn't know it's called J-squared. I suppose them being friends makes them easier to slash, or at least easier to illustrate slash :-).
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From:mofic
Date:March 27th, 2009 12:08 pm (UTC)

Re: Once again, you gave me something to think about...

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I wouldn't say the fandom is called J2 it's more of a term for the couple.

I understood that; I was imprecise.

Which icon of mine reminds you of which of yours?
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From:mofic
Date:March 27th, 2009 01:31 pm (UTC)

Re: Once again, you gave me something to think about...

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Ah okay. I get it now...
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From:chimosa
Date:March 25th, 2009 06:06 pm (UTC)
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(Regarding the ETA)
Eeee well, that's a shame- I'm one of those who can't do math. Like, seriously, basic math is beyond me most days. I usually have to do the count on my fingers thing to multiply... which was really embarassing when I was tutoring third graders in math and hid my fingers in my pocket or under the table if I was doing their work with them. Though, I did recently pick up a pack of flash cards so maybe I can improve my situation somewhat...
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From:mofic
Date:March 25th, 2009 07:33 pm (UTC)
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I'm sure you can improve! I think the first step to correcting a deficiency like that is to recognize that it is a problem, which is why it bothers me when people act like it isn't.
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From:hitchhiker
Date:March 25th, 2009 07:21 pm (UTC)
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my head hurts!
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From:rae_1985
Date:March 25th, 2009 08:50 pm (UTC)
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I have a friend that started saying she 'can't do math' back when she was starting junior high. No one ever tried to prove her wrong, and she barely scraped by in high school. We all helped her and she got the minimum grade to pass because the teachers liked her. Luckily she decided to go to college for music, and they took her math grades with a grain of salt. Then she had to do a basic math course in college, and ended up failing it twice before she barely passed again. She still doesn't balance her own accounts, and struggles to make change. You can't help but wonder what would have happened if a teacher had sat her down when she started saying that when she was 12. She didn't need to be a math genius, but with some encouragement/self esteem she could have done the basics. Everyone should know the basics for everyday life.
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From:tarchannon
Date:March 26th, 2009 12:21 am (UTC)
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We have been unfortunately been trained to think being ignorant is ok. It used to be a source of great shame, but these days, 'math is hard', 'I could never spell', 'that's just a theory' seems to be an acceptible excuse for being fucntionally illiterate. It's sad.

I have been so very dishearted in the last week over the finael of Battlestar Galactica. Huge numbers of people that followed the show for several seasons were moaning an d groaning, saying that they hated the finale and sputteting on and on. For the most part, I looked at the comments in stark horror. Three things were so very obviously clear: 1) most of those people did not actually watch the show in a way that allowed them to actualy absorb basic plot points (like a splash screen of the fellt at the beginning of the finale that said there were only 10,081 people left); 2) these people had no ability whatsoever to follow character action and thematic development well enough to understand the fruition of four seasons of very careful and deliberate writing; and 3) during the epilogues, they had no ability to fill in any spaces between the dots if they weren't led like cattle. (I'll ignore 4) Americans are utterly scientifically illiterate, because we alredy know that). I really, really have no idea how we can fix this in less than fifty years of concerted effort. obviouly, the average Joe can't read well, comprehends less, and can't do math beyond balancing a checkbook. They don't know the difference between the scientific method and a cacheticism. I'm officially horrified.
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From:davidfcooper
Date:March 26th, 2009 12:50 am (UTC)
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I have dyscalculia, & even I could figure that out. I can do the math, but it takes me much longer. I have no problem with mathematical concepts, but crunching numbers is truly difficult.
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From:mofic
Date:March 27th, 2009 10:40 am (UTC)
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This was a case (if I read the situation correctly, see other comments wrt possibility I didn't) where I think there wasn't a need to crunch numbers, just a need to understand how they applied. I doubt that these people didn't know that 6+12=18; they seemed not to know how to take that fact and put it into a real world situation. And I think that's a lot of "can't do math" - not realizing how it applies to everyday life.
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From:lilacsigil
Date:March 26th, 2009 01:25 am (UTC)
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My basic arithmetic is perfectly good, and many people will STILL argue with me at the till and would rather pay more than admit that they were wrong, or change anything they buy. Especially teachers, which is alarming. One teacher corrected my maths (why yes, I can multiply 250 by 3), was wrong, and then went and bought the wrong product JUST TO SHOW ME.

And maths is a subject totally devalued for women, in particular - as if to be able to count is unfeminine. Men who can't count (and there's just as many) at least try to hide it, usually.
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