How to Get People to Stop Saying ‘I Hate Math’

Imagine this…

You’re at a a party. Someone asks you what you do. You say, “I’m an undertaker’s assistant. And what do you do?”

They say they teach English.

You say, “Oh wow. I have always HATED English. I can’t even read the street signs!”

The guy a few feet away overhears this and joins in the conversation: “I know, right! I tried to read and write stuff in high school, but it just never worked for me. I finally decided that English wasn’t my thing.”

You respond with: “Yeah, when I go to a restaurant I ask the waiter to explain everything. So many letters! I don’t understand how you teach such a dreadful subject. I’m so sorry for you.”

Have you ever done that? Seen it? No doubt you’ve seen with with math, like this post on Sine of the Times.

Why can you say, “I hate math” but not “I can’t read”?

Why is it acceptable, even cool, to be “bad at math” but those who can’t read or write stay in the proverbial closet?

It’s time to come out, y’all. If we can’t get people to stop saying “I hate math” then let’s water it down by saying “I hate <anything else>.”

The next time you’re at a party and someone tells you what they do, respond with, “Wow, I’m so sorry for you. I’ve always hated <field/career>. You must be miserable!”

The more we all do this, the more people will stop giving credence to the words “I hate…” Soon the phrase “I hate math” will be extinguished.

What do you think? Can you do it? Will it work? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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43 Responses to How to Get People to Stop Saying ‘I Hate Math’

    • Hey, Dave!

      Thanks for the comment. Let me know how it goes. I would love to hear the reactions of the other party-goers.

  1. LOL. I keep saying I’m going to tell people I teach “text messaging” since no one ever says they hate to text message. I guess your idea is another way around it.

    • I like that idea! Although my dad says he hates to text message all the time. But he loves math. So perhaps I have to pick and choose.


      Thanks, Michael, for your comment! I’m going to try that!

  2. Noam Chomsky proved that language faculty is innate, it’s given by birth. Chomsky observed that when a human baby is exposed to linguistic data, it will always acquire the ability to understand and produce language.

    Hence, evolutionary, we can’t hate language. Reading, perhaps, we may hate, because it is arbitrary set of reference symbols on top of our sound based language.

    On the other hand, mathematics is highly abstract way of thinking, and it is to expect that (beyond elementary manipulations of integers) it can be hard to understand by many.

    Also, another factor may be, teachers first don’t understand math by themselves and hence teach math in the wrong way.

    • Thanks, Nash, for your comments.

      I think your last sentence might be the key. The teachers, the ones to share the information, are not as knowledgeable as they could be.

      But I disagree with your “mathematics is highly abstract way of thinking” – we do math all the time. In fact, when I ask someone how much they weigh, they often respond with a horrified look. They’ve quickly and naturally done the subtraction of the amount they currently weigh and the amount they WANT to weigh and determined this discrepancy is too much to say out loud.

      Furthermore, as this article points out, counting is something babies are born with.

      I did not know about the innate faculty of language. Thanks for sharing that bit of info. But I do think that the leap from innate faculty of language to reading is as great or greater than the leap from innate faculty of numeracy to written math.

    • i agree…
      i have almost completely forgotten everything i learned related to math that isnt used regulalry, which is basically all of it.
      language is used everyday of your life and thus always built upon.
      its also easy to hate anything that requires so much effort to understand with such little return on investment. if math is so important…why do people out of school for 10+ years forget most of it.
      i think of advanced math and the phrase “i’m never gonna need this” comes to mind.
      people wouldnt hate math if it was useful to them beyond school, and lets face it, if youre not an engineer, it isnt useful.
      its quite reasonable to hate math.

      • Thanks for stopping by, Nick.

        The problem is that you DO use math all the time. You just don’t use “sit down with a textbook and a pencil math.”

  3. “You’re quite right, math is useless. You won’t be wanting that wine glass, then, because its curves were mathematically designed to enhance your drinking pleasure. Oh! And let me relieve you of the cell phone you hate, it’s full of zeros and ones – can’t be too careful.” You could go on all night.

    • Thanks, Colin.

      I never thought of the wine glass. (As an algebraist, I wouldn’t have.) Do you have more information on that? I would love to use it at a cocktail party, or even a family dinner.

    • That wine glass is also like breathing. I don’t have to know how to design it, I just have to know how to drink out of it.

  4. Wow! I’m so happy to find math sites like this!
    I used to be one of these individuals who said: I’m bad at Math, I hate Maths! until I grew interested in computer programming. I discovered that Math rules the world: From The tiny Cortex A8 processor core in your iPhone, to the Ballistic Missile Defense System to GPS satellites in space, all are ruled by Math and logic. I now find Math a very interesting subject, as interesting as Philosophy (Objectivism). I realized I didn’t really hate Math, but the moronic teachers who didn’t have a clue on how to teach this marvelous subject. Now I feel ashamed and sorry about people who says they aren’t interested in such a crucial and far reaching topic.

    • Thanks for sharing, Mark!

      It’s so widespread, that it’s almost like you can even call math a subject.

      I liken it to breathing: a lot of people don’t know what’s happening physiologically when you breathe, but yet they’re pretty darn good at it. The same is true with math. We mistake “doing math” with knowing all the book math behind the day-to-day math.

      If someone forced you to learn every single year the ins and outs of the lungs and all the bits that go into to breathing, you’d probably hear people say, “I’ve always hated breathing.”

  5. This post makes me so happy.

    Honestly, I probably won’t do that. But man, it drives me crazy when I hear the “I hate math” attitude.

    So my question is this: what do you do when you’re in a social situation, explain what you do, and your audience says to your face “UGH! I HATE MATH!”? What’s your response? “I hate that sweater!”?

    • One of the things I want to try, Geoff, is ask the person how much they weigh. When they have a horrible shocked look on their face, say, “It’s interesting that you hate math because you just did it. You remembered what you weigh, how much you want to weigh, and calculated the difference. That difference was too much for you to say out loud. Within an instant you did a whole lot of math and made judgments based on it. I find it difficult to believe that you really HATE math if you’re that good at it.”

      Whatcha think?

  6. I’m currently studying for the GRE. Well, scratch that, I’m currently studying for the math portion of the GRE. I have hated math since about the 4th grade, and I will continue to do so for the rest of my life. This isn’t anxiety or fear, mind- while I do recognize these concepts exist, that doesn’t sum up my feelings on the subject and I(and I suspect many other people) hate having a third party attempt to define my feelings on a subject for me. Nor is this isn’t to say that I can’t perform basic math or even a few not-so-basic mathematical/arithmetic disciplines, but my hatred is enduring for several reasons. This site(or rather, the comments below the posts) are but one of the reasons why I, and I suspect my math-hating brethren, hate math- it confirms that people who are “good at”(using parenthesis because for some reason a lot of “math people” hate to be considered separate from others based on their skill at math) math are indeed talking about us behind our backs! Sure, this happens with other areas and disciplines all the time. For example, there’s usually someone who finds Shakespeare boring in an english class(and to date, his only work that I truly enjoy is Macbeth; all others bore the crap out of me), but it’s more keenly felt in the area of math. Why is this? I think it’s because of the way most classes are set up- it’s usually those who “get it”(with a powerful ally at their side, the person teaching the class) against those who “don’t get it”, and it usually devolves into a horrid cold war where the teacher ends up teaching to those who comprehend and all others end up just enduring it. This set-up leads to people forming tribes/cliques/groups/whathaveyou, and the “I Hate Math” tribe gains more members every year this way.

  7. Uhh..I’m missing a sentence from the above, but I hope you get my drift. Another thing about math that generates a lot of hatred is that it relies on “tips” and “tricks” that encourage a “you get it or you don’t” mentality. There are many ways to get a right answer in math, but when you are in school a teacher tends to teach one right way to the kids who do “get it” and another way to kids who “don’t get it”. When you are in the “don’t get it” group, there is a tendency to think you are getting substandard or even wrong information while the those who do “get it” are getting the right information. I’m having a hard time putting this concept into words, but I think you may be familiar with what I’m talking about.

  8. Spot on, Bon!
    I never thought about the “tips” and “tricks”, which like you I hate, and the effect they have on math haters. You are absolutely right: by teaching that there are some secret methods that will get you the right answer, but which you will not understand, teachers who teach this way reinforce the feelings of uselessness held by students who don’t “get it”.
    Thank you for giving me another reason to advise my preservice teacher students not to teach this way!

    • I’ve been thinking more about tips and tricks, Peter. I think they’re great – only if the student creates it for himself. Research partner, Wil, told me today that if a student creates a tip or mnemonic for himself, he’s got buy-in. Psychologically that’s huge.

      Thanks for your comment!

  9. There are Dyslexics who cannot read, but can understand math, just as there are those of us who detest Math, but can spell properly, unlike many of those who excel in Math. I am a right brained person. I’m one who is creative, learns by looking at objects, pictures, graphics. I’m an artist, a photographer, I know how to take things apart and fix them. But for the life of me….I HATE MATH! There, I said it. I can understand foreign languages more than I can understand Math. I picked up Latin rather easily when I was hired as a Medical Transcriptionist years ago. And I had no previous knowledge of that language before I was hired. I learned it on the job. But Math is the absolute most difficult subject for me, and millions of others to learn.

    I’m in a remedial math class in college currently, and I’m just beginning to learn the whole “PEMDAS” thing, and rounding, decimals, prime factorization, ratios, rates, proportions, etc. It’s a huge pain in my back side and I hate it. My math professor and the math tutors I’ve had are all bad spellers, and that’s one of my biggest pet peeves. I’d rather be poor at math than to be inept at spelling.

    It may be also due to the fact that I have A.D.D and PTSD, and possibly some hereditary factors that I’m so horrible in math. That could hold true for many people as well. So why are “Math” people so smug about those of us who really struggle with that subject?

    • Thanks for sharing, Kay!

      Crazy thing is – everything that you say you do well in… those are all things that a REAL mathematician needs and uses. The rub is that math teacher are often not mathematicians, so they don’t see the creative side of math.

      And because they don’t see it, they don’t teach it. They don’t allow discovery.

      If you have a chance, check out this write up of some “beautiful” math:

      I’m going to guess that you will still hate math, but you might see it slightly differently.


    • You probably aren’t reading this, Kay, but I would ask you why so many people say to mathematicians “I hate math!” when they don’t do with with so many other hard subjects? When you tell people you are an artist (let’s say you are a painter) do people say “I hate art!” or “I hate painting! It’s so hard!”

      I was working on calculus today and a co-worker said “that looks horrible!”. Gosh, thanks. She has a kid. I dislike children and think that raising children sounds horrible. But I would never say that to her because that would be pretty rude.

      So maybe the perceived smugness is a reaction to so many people recoiling in horror when they find out someone is good at math, or, dare I say it, actually likes math.

  10. I’m in my second remedial math class currently. It’s November 15, 2012, and I’ve struggled for 5 weeks to understand algebraic equations. I’ve done extra homework, took my second math test, which I failed miserably, and my instructor is trying everything she can to help me. Funny thing is, her daughter suffers from the same math learning difficulty as I do. I’ve gone to the math computer lab and had some help from a tutor, but it really hasn’t helped. The semester is winding down and I only have a few more weeks left. I think my instructor is facing the fact that I will never get the algebraic equations before we take the final exams. I’m just lucky I don’t have to retake this class because I’ve signed up for a science class that’s a sort of a replacement for Algebra. I’ll have to use basic math in my science class, but not the kind of math I’m struggling with right now.

    • I suspect, Kay, that you haven’t found an instructor with the same teaching style as your learning style. This is terribly unfortunate. I do hope your science class is better.

      You do math every day, and you do it well. And that includes algebra. The equations that go along with it, and all the notation, can get squirrely.

      Figuring out the answer is what’s important, and you no doubt do this just fine. Hang in there and let me know how it goes!

  11. In my opinion, every profession requires some math skills, and many, such as jobs in computers, science, engineering, finance, and accounting, require more advanced math skills. It is vital for every one to have a solid understanding of math.

    • I believe everyone does have a solid understanding of math, Azadeh. Just not everyone has a solid understanding of the way we write it.

      It’s like trying to write down a description of breathing. The fact is that we do it, but trying to describe it in some sort of notation could be awkward.

      Thanks so much for stopping by!

    • Most of us get by nicely in our professions without math skills above adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. I’m sixty, and I can’t remember the last time I needed to know how to find the length of the hypotenuse of a right angle triangle, the last time I needed to remember what a cosine even is, and certainly not how to do a quadratic equation.

  12. I used to love math, and then someone invented Math Lab. I am so frustrated I want to cry, and I cant find anyone who teaches pre-calculus, much less the refresher course for algebra that I now need, that isn’t taught using Math Lab. I am NOT a self motivated learner! Do they give teachers kickbacks on those $200 textbooks? Ahhhh!

    • I’m so sorry to hear that Melissa! I talk to the textbook rep in my area sometimes and she assures me that there’s research to show that Math Lab users do better overall than non-useres.

      But of course there are always some who don’t (that’s the nature of averages and statistics, right?)

      I know the $200 pricetag hurts and wouldn’t that be great if I got a kickback on it (I could buy pizza for the class during finals). But no, we get nothing – at least the adjunct instructors like me. I’ll have to ask the full-faculty members.

      Thanks for your question and sharing your frustration. Let me know how you get along – and what I can do to help.

  13. I’ve actually really hated English (resp. main language) in high school. It was just all about old books, that nobody cares about.
    I couldn’t really understand what they meant, and finally just looked it up on the internet. Great…

  14. But many people, probably most, really do hate math, and why is there anything wrong with this? For most, it’s the course that gives them the most trouble all the way through school, and often even in college, despite the fact that your major involves no math at all.

    You want people to be free to express themselves, don’t you?

    And many actually do say, “I hate English.” Nothing wrong with this, either. Love what you love, and allow others to hate what they hate.

    • When people tout freedom of speech, they sometimes forget that it doesn’t equal freedom from repercussions. James, if you see me working on math and feel the urge to tell me how much you hate math, I’ll probably feel the urge to respond in kind.

      Just because you are ALLOWED to say something doesn’t mean you necessarily HAVE to. Expecting polite behavior isn’t the same thing as oppression.

  15. I am in my 19th year of teaching math & frustrated by people practically bragging about bring bad at math!

    I teach my students that the brain believes whatever we say or write, so I encourage my students who don’t love/like/appreciate math to either write I love math on their papers or tell someone (usually me) ‘I love math”. After a few months, they realize that math is useful, fun, and sometimes something they do really love.

    Positive brainwashing works!

    • Robin – I love that idea! Perhaps I’ll keep a pen and notepad handy and ask anyone who says negative things about math to write down “I love math” on my notebook.

      Thanks bunches for the idea!

  16. Math for me was pure torture. It’s easy to understand why people like me hate math, it’s because it is a useless waste of time forced onto children that know they will NEVER use it. Math teachers take a night mareish subject and somehow make it worse. That’s talent. I hate math and I resent the time I wasted in math class.

    • I’m so SO sorry to hear that, Jim. That’s rough.

      I do hope that if you have kids, your attitude can be recovered. However, I understand where you’re coming from.

      Thanks for taking the time to stop by and share.

  17. You have no idea where I’m coming from I assure you. And that’s the problem. Some people can’t understand math. Math teachers say “oh I know it’s hard but you can do it if you try”. I’m an inventor , what if I said oh it’s easy Bon you can do it invent something. Likey Dad used to say jump in the waters just fine.

    • Maybe not. But you set your alarm clock. Which means you do the subtraction to figure out what time you have to wake up.

      No, you might not understand “textbook math.” But if you really couldn’t understand ANY math, you’d be dead.

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