Confession: I See Numbers Differently. (And it’s not what you think.)

6 is an awesome number

I’ve shared about this little quirk I have on Facebook and to my friends and family, but this is the first time I’ve ever written it down. And I’ll admit it. I’m a little nervous. Either I’m going to come off looking like a total weirdo or like the adorable, kooky geek that I feel like. I’m hoping it’s the latter, but if it’s the first, please be kind.

Here goes.

I personify numbers.

You read that right. In my mind, the digits 1 through 9 not only have genders and personalities and ages — they have relationships. Yep, there’s a whole nursery book of stories going on in my head when numbers cross my mind. And, strangely enough, great kiddie lit didn’t put this idea in my head.

This phenomenon is called ordinal-linguistic personification. (It has a name!) And a definition: it is the automatic process of assigning personalities to sequential linguistic units–including letters, numbers, months, days and more. This is a subset of the larger condition called synesthesia, in which the senses, words, colors and other incongruous experiences all meld together. Someone with synesthesia might “taste” colors or see bright hues in letters.

Me? I have always known numbers to have personalities. Like for as long as I can remember.

Let me introduce you to the family:

0 is god-like. It has no gender but is recognized as the spiritual guide of all of the other numbers.

1 is male and very passive. He’s middle aged, perhaps the patriarch of the number family.

2 is female and extremely bossy. Married to 1, she is the matriarch of the number family.

3 is male and a loner. He’s somewhat angry, but he generally keeps to himself.

4 is female. She’s sweet and easy to get along with, but she will stand up for herself. Her brother is 3.

5 is female and bossy. She particularly likes to tell 4 what to do, but in a sisterly way.

6 is male and passive. He’s married to 4, who is head over heels in love with him.

7 is male and neutral. Like 3, he’s a bit of a loner, but he’s not angry.

8 is male and friendly. He’s particularly fond of 4 but in a brotherly sort of way.

9 is male and sneaky. He doesn’t get along with anyone but 3.

Multi-digit numbers, like 10 or 99, also have personalities, largely based on the personalities of the single digits. So 99 is super-duper sneaky, while 64 is a really trustworthy, happy number.

It took me years and years to admit that I see numbers this way. When I was in my 20s, my uncle fessed up that he does the same thing. That’s an interesting fact, because synesthesia runs in families and is passed down maternally. More women than men have this characteristic, and more lefties than righties. (I’m a righty, by the way, but my uncle is a lefty.)

I also do something like this with calendars. Months and weeks don’t have personalities, but the annual calendar has always followed a very distinct shape in my mind. It’s a wavy kind of oval–almost like the path on the Candy Land game board–made up of large blocks (months) divided into rows (weeks). At any given time of the year, I can immediately call to mind where we are on my visual calendar. This helps me estimate times and remember dates.

Clearly I’m a very visual thinker, eh?

So what does this have to do with math? I have no idea. This quirk doesn’t help me memorize strings of numbers — from telephone numbers to bank PINs — easily at all. And I’m guessing that it hasn’t been particularly helpful in learning some math facts, like multiplication tables. (Is that why I can’t remember that 6 • 7 = 42? Both 6 and 7 are male, but 4 and 2 are female. I don’t know why that doesn’t compute, but there you have it.)

But it has been a boon to my daydreaming. When I’m writing algebraic equations for a curriculum development assignment, the results might end up as little stories, simply based on the numbers I choose. Certainly this is where the math and writing has come together.

So how about you? In your mind, do numbers have personalities? If so, would you be willing to share about it? What do you think of how numbers look to me? Or do you see abstract ideas, like letters or dates, in some similar fashion? I’d really love to hear from you in the comment section. (Please assure me I’m not alone!)


Math at Work Monday: Tina the Corporate Secretary


Many of us work in what we call corporate America. A lot goes on behind the scenes that allows the workers to do their jobs effectively. Tina Boocher is a corporate secretary at her husband’s fabrication business, Boochers, Inc., a a steel manufacturing company – but her responsibilities go way beyond managing email, calendars and meeting agendas. You won’t believe the math she does. 

Can you explain what you do for a living?

I work in the office of a fabrication and repair shop. My job consists of entering orders, making schedules for the employees, working up drawings and prints to build from, bookkeeping and payroll.

When do you use basic math in your job?

I use basic math in just about all applications of my work. When figuring out the dimensions on the prints (which our employees build from), I have to calculate within fractions of an inch what dimensions are required so that we can accurately fabricate and assemble our parts. As for bookkeeping and payroll, math is extremely important because it is used in ALL aspects, whether it is entering items into inventory, tallying outstanding checks to reconcile a bank statement or calculating time cards so that paychecks are printed.

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math?

Mostly, I use an adding machine to aid my work. Although, I sometimes use a calculator and computer. Spreadsheets, such as Microsoft Excel, are very useful for making reports. Excel requires the user to be able to write math formulas.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

My job would be IMPOSSIBLE to do without math. Without math, we couldn’t make our parts, track our information in our computers, or pay employees.

How comfortable with math do you feel?

I feel fairly comfortable with the math that I use on a regular basis. There are times when we have drawings that require advanced trigonometry in order to build them. At that point I need help from the fabricators who are more familiar with that type of math.

What kind of math did you take in high school?

In high school, I only made it through Algebra 1.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job?

I received on-the-job training for bookkeeping, payroll and figuring the dimensions on the prints.

This is a great example of how important the ability to do math is.  If you want more details about Boocher’s or Tina’s use of math at work, comment below. I’ll be happy to ask her!