Here in the U.S., it is my experience that over 75% of adults I meet socially will volunteer that phrase or a variation upon learning that I am a mathematician. I find this frustrating, since almost nobody would brag about being bad at history or English or really any other subject. Normally I change the subject, or perhaps say they must have had a bad classroom experience, but that feels unsatisfying and turns the conversation in an ugly direction.

Surely some of the bright minds here on Math.SE have found a good response. Note that I'm not looking to alienate a new acquaintance, so let's keep it positive.

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    Why do you care how others present them selves? – Ethan May 25 '13 at 19:56
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    I have also experienced this, and I'm interested in hearing how others respond. On a completely different note, I think this should probably be made into a CW post. – Stahl May 25 '13 at 19:56
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    This has been discussed at great length in [this MathOverflow thread](http://mathoverflow.net/questions/5353/how-to-respond-to-i-was-never-much-good-at-maths-at-school). I'm not convinced that rehashing everything here in a question that is at best borderline acceptable is really necessary. – Zev Chonoles May 25 '13 at 19:57
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    Join the club! :-) Since it’s usually just small talk, I usually try gently to change the subject. Occasionally I adopt your other approach; I don’t think that it’s led to any ugliness. – Brian M. Scott May 25 '13 at 19:58
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    I'm no psychologist or social behavioristist, by I assume the reason why people act like that is because it is standard behaviour. The same reason people ask how you are even though they might not even care, it's just something they do. People are sheep. – Git Gud May 25 '13 at 20:01
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    @vadim123 I take this opportunity to tell you that I think you're a great addition to the community. Welcome. – Git Gud May 25 '13 at 20:04
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    I have always loved [this image](http://sphotos-b.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-prn1/33467_165369543480933_6984880_n.jpg) – John Douma May 25 '13 at 20:04
  • @AsafKaragila I completely agree with your pie chart. – mathscrazy May 25 '13 at 20:04
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    @mathscrazy: Neither of the charts are mine. – Asaf Karagila May 25 '13 at 20:05
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    @AsafKaragila and of course for that second pie chart, there's also "is there even anything you can research in math?" – Stahl May 25 '13 at 20:06
  • @user69810 that quote is how I always respond when people say this. – rurouniwallace May 25 '13 at 20:10
  • @FedericaMaggioni, a bit of both I think. – vadim123 May 25 '13 at 20:24
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    there are two cases: either your social life is very low, or that 75% is really underestimated – Federica Maggioni May 25 '13 at 20:24
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    How did my response to @FedericaMaggioni's comment travel back in time and appear before it? – vadim123 May 25 '13 at 20:26
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    vadim, quantum entanglement! – Asaf Karagila May 25 '13 at 20:27
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    @vadim123 time travelling comments – Federica Maggioni May 25 '13 at 20:28
  • It's just the same for any academic job. You'd get the same if you said that you were an English professor, historian, sociologist, philosopher or whatever. – Lucas May 25 '13 at 21:07
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    They are not "bragging". It's more about asking you to accept that you are better at maths than them. You should interpret it as saying "well don't talk about work then, unless you want to *risk* alienating me by talking about things I just don't get". – Lucas May 25 '13 at 21:12
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    @Lucas: In fact some of them *are* bragging: this is a genuine point of pride for them. And in my experience mathematicians are in fact likelier to get this response than academics in many other field. – Brian M. Scott May 25 '13 at 21:18
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    I wonder if musicians get told "I was always bad at music"? Music, like mathematics, relies heavily on technical skills, and as in mathematics, the technical skills are not really what it's all about. But in the vast majority of schools, people are not forced to take music courses. Forcing people to take math when they're not interested is the main source of all the misconceptions, such as the idea that math consists of algorithms to be applied to precisely stated problems, or that its purpose is to balance your checkbook. – Michael Hardy May 25 '13 at 21:57
  • @BrianM.Scott Mathematicians are definitely on the frequent end of the spectrum. But I would say chemists get it the worst and psychologists the least (everyone is interested in psychology). – Lucas May 25 '13 at 22:16
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    "Everyone is, until they learn." – hobbs May 25 '13 at 22:32
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    @AsafKaragila -- I do not see my response for "You are getting a PhD in math?" in the pie chart -- which would be "I am *so* sorry!" (with a cheeky grin) – Happy Green Kid Naps May 26 '13 at 01:49
  • A slightly politicized comment: you can't force someone to learn something. But, our education system attempts to force people to learn math for, oh, say, TEN YEARS. So its inevitable that many (most?) of them will end up hating math and/or being proud of the fact that they were never very good at it. – goblin GONE May 26 '13 at 04:37
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    English is taught just as long as math, and few people hate it. – Adam Nov 30 '13 at 23:38
  • @boywholived: You do know that you can't quite update comments. Right? – Asaf Karagila Jun 28 '14 at 06:05
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    @JohnDouma, your pie chart image link is broken. – dbanet Jun 18 '15 at 04:28
  • Can someone repost the aforementioned pie chart? – EthanAlvaree Jan 14 '20 at 20:28

17 Answers17


To put a slightly different spin on this (before @Zev votes to close :) ). When folks ask me what I teach, I ask them to name their least favorite subject. Occasionally I do get English or history or science. But 90% of the time I get math ... to which I reply "bingo." :) I then engage them in a discussion about how math (generically) and history (for me and many others) are ruined for the masses by secondary teachers who just don't get it and who teach relying almost totally on rote memorization/manipulation. They concur 99% of the time on this. At some point, I reassure them that there are some really good teachers out there (and I claim to be one) :P

Ted Shifrin
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    +1 'the secondary teachers who just don't get it'... so true, and sadly, it's because a *lot* of secondary teachers have little to no college level math experience. – cmhughes May 26 '13 at 01:29
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    I've taught a lot of math education majors. Many have been fine — may have struggled some, but respected the enterprise and had, or developed, a liking for math. The scary and depressing thing is how many, including graduate students, detest math. :( – Ted Shifrin May 26 '13 at 01:42
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    @TedShifrin It is a cop-out to just blame the high school teachers. If most or many math high school teachers in your country do not understand mathematics, then this is just a reflection of your societys attitude towards mathematics and teaching. (Students who really understand mathematics are rarely encouraged by their university professors to become high school teachers.) – Phira Dec 29 '13 at 18:51
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    I strongly disagree with you Ted. Most teachers I've had have tried to explain things as much as they can. "Rote memorization" sometimes is the only thing that students get out of it! –  Jun 04 '15 at 16:56
  • I know this is late, but there's also a large quality gap between teacher quality in schools, and in my research, I've found the gap to be especially prominent in math education. I worked with teachers in the Chicago Public School System, and even small math enrichment programs for students of color or otherwise underprivileged students did wonders for their understanding in math. – Rushabh Mehta Nov 18 '19 at 02:31
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    My theory as to why math is often where these gaps in teacher quality are most apparent is because math, unlike most other disciplines, continues to build on understanding from previous years, so a single poor year of study can permanently shut down a student's progress. – Rushabh Mehta Nov 18 '19 at 02:32

Math is hard for everyone. It takes long hours of practice to become competent. I think that's what people want to hear; and fortunately, it's true.

This reply has the advantage of steering the conversation in a somewhat more positive direction---in my experience, usually towards whatever it is that the person does like to do and has practiced long hours at. This is usually more interesting than having a conversation about poorly taught math courses.

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    I am not sure that this is true (but I do think it is a good response!). I think it is true for the vast majority of people (including mathematicians). However, there is probably someone alive who does it all without really trying...([Simon Norton](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_P._Norton) springs to mind...) – user1729 May 25 '13 at 20:27
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    **Anything** is hard if done at a high enough level, but that doesn’t in my opinion justify the first sentence. By normal everyday standards math **is** easy for some people and hard for others. And if you’re enjoying what you’re doing, long hours of practice do not automatically equate to difficulty. (‘He ain't heavy Mister — he’s m’ brother!’) – Brian M. Scott May 25 '13 at 21:05
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    @Steve: Maybe it depends on what you mean by "hard" and "struggle". The first thing I remember for which I'd use those words is [closure operators](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Closure_operator), and this was in my first year at university. But that _doesn't_ mean that I understood everything before _immediately at the first read_. So I come to the same conclusion as Brian, and would only say that math is hard for _most people_. – Hendrik Vogt May 26 '13 at 07:45

Asserting you are a mathematician without immediately volunteering further details is just a bad thing. It's very closed.

The principle is simple: As soon as you mark yourself as part of a world that people are not part of and don't understand, you alienate them. Unless you give them something that relates to their own experience, you are going to have a hard time.

Consider this conversation:

— Yeah, I'm a school teacher.
— Cool, do you teach little ones or big ones?
— Little ones, they're constantly surprising...
— Yeah, I've got two kids about to go to school.
[Conversation ensues]

It's OK for a teacher, because everyone knows what a teacher does, roughly. Even if they don't really understand what a teacher does day to day, they know why they do what they do.

— Yeah, I'm a mathematician.
— ... (blank look as they realize they know nothing about what a professional mathematician does) ... Yeah, I was bad at maths at school. (nothing else to say)
[Awkward silence ensues]

In this case they have nothing to work with. With something like maths, you have to give them something extra to relate to, or they will just jump to their only experience of mathematics: school, where more than likely they were not working at the standard of a profession mathematician.

It is easy to find yourself in the Ivory Tower. People responding in this way should be taken as an indication that your work has become very detached from social reality — although some mathematicians think this is a virtue, it really is not, it's more like laziness.

Things you could say instead of "I'm a mathematician":

  • "I investigate the properties of prime numbers."
  • "I look at how fluids move."
  • "I'm interested in symmetry."
  • "Do you know X? Well, I do something like X."
  • "I try to find out why Y."

Just give a more open answer that give people a chance to grasp what you do. Do not require them to be part of your world to understand it. If you do this you will find people will suddenly become quite good at maths.

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    I like this answer a lot, except that variations like "I teach mathematics" or "I'm a teacher in college, of mathematics" get the same response, so it's not just "mathematician". – vadim123 May 25 '13 at 22:21
  • @vadim123 Agreed. You could just say you teach to start with. Teaching and learning is a pretty universal interest. – Lucas May 25 '13 at 22:28
  • @vadim123 If you qualify your teaching with a subject, you are inevitably steering the conversation towards that subject. In this case, best to prepare them before dropping them in the deep end. – Lucas May 25 '13 at 22:30
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    This is a very good point (+1). Nowadays, when the person next to me on the airplane asks what I do, I tell them "I live by my wits." Soergel told me that he tells people that he studies "Perversity and primitive ideals." I'm a little bit jealous I haven't thought of something equally clever. – Stephen May 25 '13 at 23:51
  • @Steve Ha! I haven't heard that phrase for a very long time, I like it. – Lucas May 26 '13 at 00:36
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    "I'm a mathematician, I'm mostly interested in imaginary universes of mathematical objects which are not the common basis for modern mathematics, but are related to it. In particular I investigate the sort of catastrophes that may or may not occur when we remove one of the essential assumptions in mathematics. I mainly work with infinites so large and complex that no one can really understand them for what they are." **BLANK STARE.** But then again I already alienate many people just by talking to them, so I guess it's not that bad. – Asaf Karagila May 26 '13 at 00:59
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    @Asaf, you could make that more accessible to people if you wanted to (do you?). E.g. "I'm a mathematician. I do research into, for example, what happens if you remove one of the essential assumptions in mathematics." – LarsH May 26 '13 at 01:34
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    @Lars: Sorry, I just can see through the "okay, I'll pretend I know what that means", and it's just the same as a blank stare. And the staring person knows that too. Social mind games are wrong, and to me more insulting than someone telling me that they are doing something that I hate and knows nothing about. – Asaf Karagila May 26 '13 at 01:36
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    @Asaf, maybe some people give up too easily and just pretend to understand. Maybe you also give up too easily on helping people truly understand some aspect of what you do. Sure, you may have to set the initial goalpost very low relative to what holds your interest. But if people are able to reach that goalpost, they'll be more confident about inquiring further into what fascinates you. – LarsH May 26 '13 at 01:47
  • @AsafKaragila Your quote exemplifies what is usually meant by being in the Ivory Tower. This is not a criticism, I can totally understand why people have no time to spend making themselves understood. Personally, I have to make time for it. That said, my philosophical influences lean me towards arguing that either relating your work directly to the experience of others is *possible*, (X)or, you are insane. – Lucas May 26 '13 at 01:50
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    @Lars, Lucas: I think that if logic and basic (naive) set theory were taught in high schools, or even in first grade, just the very very basic ideas, then it might be explainable more easily. I'm sorry, but I'm not going to dumb down my entire field just so someone will understand that. Much like I don't pretend, nor I care to pretend, to understand what someone else does if their work is indeed full of delicate and intricate points. I find it insulting to myself, to the other person, and to the professions. Me? I usually smile, and say "forget it, some math thingie." and it's fine with them. – Asaf Karagila May 26 '13 at 01:53
  • @AsafKaragila I remember doing "sets" when I was about 8, we had rings and different objects and we had to arrange them according to certain rules like "red and round" or something. That was fun. – Lucas May 26 '13 at 02:00
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    @AsafKaragila I don't think anyone's work is without subtlety and detail. Indeed, if someone considers their work to be without such things then they are either inept or have too low a sense of self worth!... Regarding you other statements, it sounds like you think some people do simple, "understandable", day to day things. Whereas you yourself cross into the domain of the gods to see glimpses of the incommunicable true nature of things. Contrary to this, every day things are not simple and, dare I say, the thing that makes mathematics hard is the inarticulation of professional mathematicians. – Lucas May 26 '13 at 03:05
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    @Lucas, I wasn't the one equating understandable with simple. There is a huge difference there, but it is a lot easier to understand what a copywriter does than a set theorist, whose work has little to no relationship with the world we live in. I dare say that at some point many of the [abstract] mathematicians stop living in the physical world. How can you bridge that in just a few words? I used to believe the things you do, but then I stopped for a good reason. But since you claimed that I am insane, I'm not going to try and explain myself better. That'd be impossible for me, being insane. – Asaf Karagila May 26 '13 at 05:55
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    Even if you say you're a musician, and the reply is "I tried musical instruments when I was a kid and I sucked", it's not alienating in the same way because people who sucked at playing instruments still listen to and like music. – Kaz May 26 '13 at 06:04
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    @AsafKaragila Ah, but... I used to believe the things I do, then I stopped for what seemed like good reason, then... I started again. I was not claiming that you were insane. Roughly, I was saying, if you are *willing* not to communicate you are living in the Ivory Tower, if you *cannot*, you are insane. I was definitely saying you were in the former category. Generally, I don't think mathematicians are insane (excepting notable counterexamples). – Lucas May 26 '13 at 13:41
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    And if I can't **and** won't? Why does that make me? But the point is that mathematicians **are** different than other people. Try talking with the clerk in your local store about Dadaism and its philosophical movements against the rigid rules of late 19th century art, and their related results in the early 20th century. If the clerk has something intelligible to say on the topic, he probably was an art history major at some point, but on the good probability that he wasn't -- he won't understand what you're saying, and if you show him Dadaistic artwork, he won't get why this is art at all. – Asaf Karagila May 26 '13 at 13:45
  • @Kat Well put. Perhaps, if the reply is "I really don't get music", one might feel the same. Similarly, perhaps if someone said "I'm not very good at maths, but pi has always fascinated me", you might feel better. – Lucas May 26 '13 at 13:49
  • @AsafKaragila Well, "wont" implies "could" implies "can", so I guess it would make you a contradiction!? – Lucas May 26 '13 at 15:15
  • @AsafKaragila As for Dada. Thing is, most people know something about Dada, they might not be as practiced as expressing it as an art major, but everyone at least knows "The Fountain", and has some opinion on it. Even if not, the question of "what is art", the question that was brought into prominence at that time, is pretty universal. If one knows a bit about it, one can easily engage with someone who knows less, and they might even surprise you. In fact, Dada marked by an anti-elitist attitude, which very much goes against your implication that you need a degree to understand it. – Lucas May 26 '13 at 15:16
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    @Lucas: I dare you to an experiment, to ask five random people not residing within a two miles radius from a museum, university (or related institutes) whether or not the term "Dadaism" means anything to them. – Asaf Karagila May 26 '13 at 16:17
  • @AsafKaragila But that's just knowing a name, which is nothing to do with being able to talk to someone about something. I'm familiar with my hands, I could probably talk to someone for hours about them if I was in the mood, but I have no clue what the "proper" names are for their various components. – Lucas May 26 '13 at 17:16
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    @Lucas: And if someone knows what are sets, then the terms "set theory" will be familiar, and if they are familiar with the definitions (just not with their names) then it will take a lot more than one sentence, but I will certainly be able to explain to them things. But knowing what is a generic extension without knowing the name for that term? I doubt that there's someone like that out there. I still think that if you ask those five random people what is "The Fountain" they are unlikely to know, and the name Duchamp will probably not ring any bells either. – Asaf Karagila May 26 '13 at 17:29
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    @AsafKaragila Snippet of a conversation that just took place well outside of 10 miles from a university: "no I haven't heard of it", "you know, it's an upside down urinal", "Oh. That!" . – Lucas May 26 '13 at 18:32
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    @Lucas: Then you live in a much more intelligent neighborhood than me. If I were to ask that someone who lives around these parts (and I live well within the two miles radius from the local university), I'd probably get beaten up... and possibly robbed while they're at it. Or it'll be someone that doesn't speak Hebrew nor English, just Russian... in which case we can't communicate at all. Or at the best case scenario, I'll get a sneering look saying "what the hell are you talking about???". – Asaf Karagila May 26 '13 at 18:50
  • @AsafKaragila Well, I'm in rural Britain. Think most people have an opinion about it once they know what you are talking about, because it is good look-how-pointless-modern-art-is fodder for the tabloids if nothing else. It's not a Damien Hurst, but still roughly within the boundaries of public consciousness... I feel we are getting sidetracked here. – Lucas May 26 '13 at 19:05
  • thanks for this; next time i'll just say right out that i'm a mathematician who investigates properties of the prym period mapping from the moduli space of connected etale double covers C'-->C of smooth irreducible curves, defined over an algebraically closed field of characteristic ≠ 2, to the space of principally polarized abelian varieties P, by examining the abel parametrization of the prym theta divisor of P by the special divisor variety of precanonical even divisors on C', with special regard to the behavior of singularities and their tangent cones. – roy smith Apr 12 '22 at 00:56
  • response: "and what are the practical applications of that?" – roy smith Apr 12 '22 at 01:03

At the point where you say that you're a mathematician, that is then the most recent topic thrown into the "conversation pot", and the only connection most people have to that topic is that they were bad at it once upon a time. So that is all they can say, if they say anything at all.

That person you are speaking with was bad at math at a time when they had to work with math on a daily basis, and of whatever they did learn, they probably remember a quantity that, in the vocabulary of those who were bad at math, is expressed as "jack squat".

So, that person having revealed everything they know about math, that topic is thereby exhausted. At that point, someone's conversational skills will have to kick in and move things in a different direction. One principle that works very well in conversation is "Me too, I'm just like you". Well, not said literally, of course.

"I'm a mathematician" "Oh, man, I was bad at math in school" "Believe it or not, so was I! I ended up in this remedial class, even. That's where things turned around for me because there was a great teacher who really helped us to "get it". Still, I had no idea at that time I'd end up an academic, let alone in math. Life is funny that way."

Just be glad the response isn't this: "Oh, you're a mathematician? Like Euler and Gauss and those guys? What have you discovered in math that people are using to solve problems?"

Now you're screwed in the conversation.

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Sometimes, the conversation never gets as far as "I was always bad at math." I was at a party with my wife while we were in graduate school. A guest asked her what she did, and my wife replied that she was a math teacher. The guest then turned and walked away, never saying a word in response, and never to be seen again. I think some people have some deep- seated issues with math, not just with mathematicians. Why, I do not know, and it would be useless for me to guess, as I am not really qualified to do so.

Chris Leary
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I was never good at singing till a stranger at a wedding turned to my wife after the service and asked her "who was that bloke with the beautiful voice standing next to you?"

I once helped a person with their last chance at GCSE (high school) - they needed to pass to become a teacher. Looking at their work, they could do what they needed - indeed, over the three exams they'd failed, they'd shown that they could answer every question they'd been asked. They got a 'B' when they needed a 'C' (this was a fortnight before the exam - so really last chance saloon). I said "bottle that feeling and give it your your pupils".

People have been educated to believe they are not capable - most are. The most powerful thing is to catch them doing it, because that has the potential to break the spell.

Mark Bennet
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I get a variant of this depressingly often when people find out I am an engineer. You might be surprised how many people think "engineering = math."

It's worse than you suggest. Being "bad at math" has actual consequences in life in ways being bad at music or history or poetry do not. Being bad at math means you likely make foolish decisions, especially when it comes to finances. This is a problem because people who say "bad at math" normally mean "I avoid math at all costs but wish I was better at it."

So what can you respond? Realize people mean something different. They are really saying, "I dislike math and/or have no interest in learning but wish I magically knew it" - not "I am bad/was always bad/could never do math."

You can approach this a couple ways.

  • "Why do you say that?" is generally how I address it as this leads to lots of followup questions
  • "So was I" can make for interesting responses
  • "It takes a lot of work/practice"
  • "Oh wow! how do you maintain your life?!" (I don't recommend this)

Many of these people have been conditioning themselves for years or even decades to convince themselves they are "bad at math."

Just a note, this used to bother me or even make me feel guilty, too. There is an implicit, "aww, man, I wish I was as lucky as you were to be good at math" in that response.

But at the end of the day, I've had to realize a lot of people have simply spent years telling themselves they are bad at math. That's not my fault.

Don't feel guilty by people saying a variation on "I was bad at math."

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I respond with "what was your favorite subject?" If I was bad at it then I would say so. If I liked it even though I was bad at it, I would move the conversation to that topic. If I didn't like it, I would say so and ask "why was it your favorite subject?"

The "what do you do?" question is an attempt at finding a commonality and a mutually interesting topic. Keep moving in that direction. If the disclosure came in some other context, well, I'd just say "most people don't like math" and go back to the previous topic.

Old Pro
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I tend to nod agreeably and say that math isn't instinctive and takes a lot of time to learn, but that I was fortunate to have positive early experiences with math. Maybe I'll say a few words about what I think were key events (or key things that didn't happen--like never had a teacher who turned it into confusing drudgery), suggest that most people don't have as good of experiences, and suggest that teachers and early reinforcement is really important.

That leaves the conversation in a nice flexible position: I haven't tried to make the person feel stupid, I haven't claimed that math is hard for me (it was nonintuitive to learn, but it was fun and pretty easy, so it was no problem playing with it until I developed some intuition), and I've given easy paths to talk about either the positive aspects of math, the problems with math teaching, or any positive early experience the other person might have had.

The main problem is saying too much: the person probably wasn't looking for a thesis on math ability. I haven't figured out how to do this briefly enough to flow quickly in casual conversation. (But I haven't had much practice either--most people I talk to are not bad at math.)

Rex Kerr
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Since a vast majority of people are under the impression that mathematics is like the curricula they had in primary and secondary school, this is not too surprising.

Really they don't have any qualification to say they are bad at math. (I know I didn't see any real math until college.) They might have been bad at the curriculum, but that's understandable given how boring and stupid it is. That is what happens when you teach mathematical tasks as behaviors to be trained in.

Unfortunately, teaching mathematics in an effective way would be more time consuming and less testable than the current curriculum. Moreover, very few people in the position of teaching those age groups are probably not suitable for teaching real mathematics. In short, the way people expect young people to be educated is at odds with actual effective instruction.

For anyone who hasn't already read it, Lockhart's lament is relevant to this and is worth reading once.

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Just ask what the student likes to do or does well. Then show that there is math in it. Then you can use this as a base to elaborate and cultivate an interest.


I think it depends on people. Beyond practicing, it's about logic, and sometimes about abstraction. I think a lot of people would find hard to put effort into it, because abstracion is a totally irregular way of thinking for an everyday people.

Just like anything else, math can be learnt anytime by anyone. Just have to begin it!

However, talking about it without any subjective opinions is hard for me, because even though I hate practicing all the time, basically I love logic things, such as math (but I prefer programming) - overall, feel free to downvote me if I'm wrong.

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I have answered this before by saying "I was always bad at ". But then I would tell them how I got better at something, and ask them why they think they are not good at something. For people who genuinely want to become better or that do have an appreciation for the subject matter, I use it as an opportunity for them to teach me something I don't know in exchange for me to teach them something I know. I like the concept that learning and teaching should come hand-in-hand.

Michael Lai
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Serious math involves serious abstraction. Most people aren't very good at that. It takes practice. But when people say that they're no good at math, I'm not sure that's the problem, because people who say that probably have never gotten that far.

When I look at a page of symbols in an area of math about which I know nothing, it looks like nonsense, it looks impressive, and it looks impenetrable. But I know from experience that that's how math always looks when you don't know anything about it. So I'm not afraid of the mysterious pages of symbols. I know that I can learn it--at least if I find the right textbook, and go slowly, and it doesn't turn out that I will need 7 years of study to get to where I can understand this area of math. (I also think that the mysterious symbols look cool, even when I don't understand them, but that's just my perversion.)

I think that many people just see the impenetrable symbols and shudder. And they do this even when they know what each symbol means. Their eyes glaze over. I think the key is to stop, take a deep breath, and worth through the symbols one by one. One probably needs to learn that that's a possibility.

About pride: I once worked in a menial office job with someone who was obviously good at careful, complex reasoning. Any time I would point that out, he'd insist that I was wrong, and that he was no good at logic. No, he was an artistic type. Math is probably like that. Math seems rational, rigid, inhuman to some people. So if you're good at math, there's something a little bit wrong with you, from that point of view.

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I usually say something about math being just another language, and that it takes a lot of exposure, practice, and work to become fluent. A very different sort of language, but analogous nonetheless. This usually gets people interested, because it's not a way that they are used to thinking about math. I don't know how widely this resonates with other math types, but it feels this way to me: whether or not it ought to be called a "language" I don't know, but in terms of how our brains learn it, I think the analogy holds.

Part of why this helps I think is to move sideways from the usual directions, like math is adding up big lists of numbers, or math is beyond the grasp of normal minds, and relating it to something most people have experience with and a whole different set of conceptions about.

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I am not a mathematician just a lay person who find abstractions easy to work with.

I reply and tell them that it's not their fault. The problem is that maths is about abstract thinking and all it takes it so get the right abstraction (or model) in the mind of the person and they'll get it.

I tell them that some people 'can visualise maths' easily, but others may need help in getting to the visualisation. It's down to the teacher to help the student 'see the maths' and that if they choose to ignore the fact that they suck as maths and imagine that they've just not had a map that lets them navigate that world easily, they could do so. It's just mid set.

Preet Sangha
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Finding some practical application for math can get people quite a lot more interested; helping them to feel like they have a mastery of the numbers; and thus of the world around them.

That most likely sounded like a paragraph of BS though, so what I'm really trying to advertise is the LOGO Programming Language; the story of Seymour Papert's Lisp-like language for small children is filled with numerous instances of kids who were "never good at math" finding that they had really just been keeping away from it due to adverse learning experiences. Here's the book that I did my final term paper on. Here you have kids below 3rd grade, learning systems of geometry, degrees, and even programming idioms like subroutines, simply through the ability to experiment with them.

Applying those kind of ideas universally in a school system would be a huge undertaking, but it could apply very well in a private learning environment. Also: LOGO is old as disco, but the basic principles mentioned in the book are available in the 'turtle' library of Python.

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  • and you can try it online at http://turtleacademy.com/. I've been setting my daughters to try LOGO that way. – LarsH May 26 '13 at 01:50