Never say never

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Mathematical symbol for infinity, which is probably not how long you will love your boyfriend

It has been brought to my attention—as usual, by my own husband—that I have an anomalous social behavior.

Who could’ve seen that coming?

The current habit, seemingly made popular by pregnant teens on the Montel Williams Show in the past millennium, of declaring one’s certainty with mathematically impossible percentages, is causing me a daily struggle to be understood.

“Montel, I’m 120% sure I’m not the father!”

My husband asserts that my insistence upon using mathematics only in accordance with the standards and rules taught to me in school is leading to confusion when I explain my opinions to normal people.

If I think it is extremely likely that I will do something, I will give it a 99% probability. After all, nothing is ever really certain in life. I could have a car accident on my way to deliver the school bake sale items, or I could drop dead from an aneurysm while waiting to make the deposit at the bank. If I tell you I am 99% certain I’ll do something, you should feel pretty confident that it is going to happen. Any failure to act will be due to an act of God or some sort of wildly improbable scenario.

“Well, Montel, I’m 1000% sure he is the father! No, 2000%”

So when a situation comes up where I know some aspect of my schedule or my calendar is likely to impede forward progress on a task I undertake, I will give a more realistic assessment of my likelihood to get things done.

“Can I help with the class phone tree? I have to arrange for childcare, so I’m 75% sure I can help out.”

When you decrease your stated probability of participating to a mathematically feasible range, you will likely find people react with confusion, or they feel insulted, because, like grade inflation, most people think they are “certain” when they really are not. One comes across as noncommittal or disinterested when using language more carefully than is the norm.

I’ll admit to occasional bursts of enthusiastic declarations of certainty, but I very often reel them back mere moments later and amend my statement to something more accurate.

The point may fairly be argued that, by refusing to conform to the cultural norm, I am, in fact, the one who is failing to communicate. So be it. I’m 90% certain that I don’t care.
box-style Clipart math button

Originally published Sunday, May 22, 2011 on iWeb

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