Mathematicians are a rare specimen to behold. While not quite endangered, they tend to congregate in areas less prone to large population densities, such as libraries, or the basements of math buildings, thus making their numbers seem lower than they actually are. This type of behavior is fortunate, for it is because of these tendencies to cluster together that breeding mathematicians in captivity has proven extremely successful – much more so than attempting to breed mathematicians in the wild with the general population (although there are successful cases of the latter phenomenon as well). The point here is that, unless you are of a certain persuasion, you could find yourself going years, possibly your whole life, without ever meeting a mathematician.
Should you be so fortunate to spot one, make sure not to approach too quickly, or you may scare the mathematician away. If you are vigilant, you may be able to engage the mathematician in conversation. In the event that this happens to you, there are a few common misconceptions about what’s appropriate to say to one who studies math. For your consideration, I present three common things people say when they find they are talking to a mathematician, and why one should avoid saying such things.
1) “You study math? You know, I never liked math.”
Ok. What exactly am I supposed to say to that? If you met a musician, would you say “You know, I’ve never liked music. Not my cup of tea.”? If you met a lawyer, would you say, “Yes, studying the law is all well and good, if you are a sucker, that is.” I should hope not. But when it comes to mathematics, people feel it is entirely acceptable to share with you how much they despise that which you devote so much of your time to. Perhaps they were abused by mathematics early in their life (in fact, for many I think this is the case). However, I am not your psychiatrist, and I have no interest in telling you that it’s ok, the math will not come out and bite you now that you are grown. Remember, when it comes to mathematicians, if you don’t have anything nice to say, tell them how good they look in their glasses.
2) “You study math? What’s 12,147 times 5,382?”
Of course, equally atrocious is any question of the form “What is n times m?” where n and m are sufficiently large. Contrary to the image of mathematicians portrayed in most popular media, we are not all socially awkward computational savants – at the very least, we are not all computational savants (even if we do have to buy all our underwear from the K-Mart on Oak and Burnett). Very little, if any, of what mathematicians do involves finding the product of very large numbers. And should we need to multiply very large numbers, we have calculators, just like the rest of you. If we are able to compute larger products than you, it is usually only because our calculators are more expensive. This brings me to a related point, of particular importance when you are out with a large group of people in a restaurant or bar, and amongst you lies a mathematician:
2.5) “Give the tab to the math guy! He’ll figure it out!”
It is precisely these kinds of prejudices that have kept mathematicians down for hundreds of years. From personal experience, under the pressure of society’s expectations on my computational abilities, I find it more difficult to figure out how to split the tab when everyone is eyeing me, wondering what is taking so long. But let’s be honest: you’re just trying to find an excuse not to figure it out yourself. Because nobody wants to figure it out. Well, mathematicians are a lot like assassins – they will do your dirty work, but they expect to be paid top dollar for their services. So the next time you think to ask a mathematician to tell you how much you owe, be careful. You may be paying a hefty, hidden premium for his or her services.
While I’m at it, we don’t enjoy doing our income taxes any more than the rest of you, either.
3) “So tell me exactly what kind of math you do.”
This one is a bit subtler. In certain contexts, such a request will endear you in the heart of a mathematician for many years. But often times, especially in party settings, such a remark is made simply to try and start a conversation. Gentle reader, before you make such a request, you must be made aware of what a deep rabbit hole you are jumping into.
The work of a mathematician tends to be extremely specialized. Specialized to the point where mathematicians will not understand what one another is doing. So unless you want an answer so general as to make it mostly useless (“Number Theory,” “Analysis,” “Geometry,” etc.), you are, in effect, demanding that the mathematician compress years of difficult study into a brief and easily comprehensible tablet. Now, of course there is something to be said for developing the skill of being able to translate one’s research to a level that can be understood, at least in a broad sense, by a large population. But at the same time, for some things, it is simply not possible to have a simple explanation up one’s sleeve. This is why mathematics is difficult. So an explanation of current research will, more often than not, take time, and be at least slightly incomprehensible.
This is not so much a problem, if one is willing to listen. The problem arises when, as mentioned before, one has merely made this remark to try and start a conversation. Not knowing what the questioners have gotten themselves into, they now must sit and listen to a mathematician talk at length about things the questioners really may have had no interest in to begin with. If this goes on too long, it can create tension, and furthermore, when the listener stops paying attention, the mathematician’s time is essentially being wasted. That time could be better spent doing research, or getting all the digits from more attractive party attendees.
In summary, I know it can be difficult knowing what to say when you meet a mathematician. But there are certain things you should not say, at least without understanding what you’re getting yourself into. It may help to pretend that instead of a mathematician, you are talking to a rock star or international supermodel – this should not be a difficult stretch of the imagination, and will help you avoid the taboos mentioned above.