SIMON WALKER: Playing a numbers game


SIMON WALKER: That’s Life archive

IT’S not what you say, but how you say it when it comes to comprehending spoken numbers.

I find that unless people say them to me in the same rhythm that I say them to myself, I have a real problem on the uptake.

Experts put this down to: a) everyone intones differently; and b) I’m a bit slow.

Take phone numbers, for example.

I think in terms of triples.

Newcastle phone numbers are generally an area code, followed by six numbers.

For example 49 123 123.

If someone asks for my number, I give it thus: “49 [pause] 123 [pause] 123.”

But other people break it up differently.

They go: “49 [pause] 12 [pause] 31 [pause] 23.”

Or: “4912 [pause] 3123.”

And they put different emphases on different numbers.

And they make it sound like an entirely different number, unless I concentrate really hard.

You can tell when that’s happening: I go cross-eyed.

It’s like hitting a deaf version of a blind spot in my comprehension.

I’m hearing but I not seeing.

And seeing is believing, apparently, when it comes to hearing.

Numbers, at least.

Which leaves me to wonder: did they get my number right?

A nagging worry if you’re relying on them to ring you back.

Like the mechanic who has your car in for repairs.

After a week, you begin to suspect they didn’t get the number right after all.

But it turns out they did, they just didn’t want to make the call because the cost of repairs had blown out due to the unavailability of parts and who knows what else went down on that hoist.

But that’s another story.

Before it gets to that, I’ll generally double check the number:

“Rigggght . . . did you say . . . 49 [pause] 123 [pause] 123?”

And they might go: “49 [pause] 12 [pause] 31 [pause] 23” or “4912 [pause] 3123.”

And maybe that number is starting to sound familiar, as you break out, cerebrally, in a sweat. And go cross-eyed.

But it’s not a given.

In this instance, I’d go over it one more time in the “double-triple” manner I’m comfortable with, hopeful that they’ll come round to my way of synapsing.

I might even add a few exclamation marks to the tone of voice to suggest I’ve got some sort of high moral ground.

Or at least send out a signal that I’m a bit slow.

“Just repeating: 49 [pause!] 123 [pause!] 123 [pause!] – OK?”

To which you’re more than likely to get: “That’s what I said, sir.”

That can grate, but it’s better than if they start freestylin’: “4 [pause] 912 [pause] 31 [pause] 23.”

This can lead you to question people.

Mainly yourself, and whether you have a brain injury.

But maybe the other person too.

Surely, on compassionate grounds, they wouldn’t toy with you like that.

The problem amplifies when you deal with mobiles, which have more numbers, and hence more ways of intoning them.

Generally, I transmit mobile numbers in terms of four-three-three, eg 0402-432-432.

But not everyone else does.

I get a lot of messages on the answering machine that I replay in order to note numbers so I can ring people back.

But they don’t make it easy when they leave messages like: “. . . and the mobile is 04 [pause] 0243 [pause] 243 [pause] 2.”

Poor old “Mr 0402 [pause] 432 [pause] 432” can’t compute.

The unfamiliar beat causes his pencil to freeze.

I don’t know what’s worse; trying to understand what they’re saying, or trying to work out how to go back through my answering machine to review the call.

I suspect it’s a bit of both.

I find I can process longer numbers, like bank accounts, or cheque numbers or reference numbers, quicker if I break them up into chunks of at least two, but preferably three or four, numerals.

It saves the Elephant Man moments at the bank counter having to go back and painstakingly check each individual numeral.

At least credit card numbers operate in series of four and you can stick on the rock steady 4/4 beat.

Well, you hope you can.

Me: “The credit card number is 4321-4321-4321-4321.”

Them: “OK sir, so that was 43214-321-4-32-1432-1, correct? Sir? Sir? You’re going cross-eyed.”

But that’s only me.

You have to accept that people do it differently.

And are they wrong?

Of course they are.

But can you tell them that?

Of course you can’t.

They might hang up on you mid-credit card transaction, or cancel your cheque.

Metropolitan areas, where they have seven digit local numbers, throw a spanner in the works too.

It’s not a big spanner, but it’s a niche issue with wide ramifications.

Without overstating the situation, given our reliance on numbers, I feel the very future of society depends on it.

I’m sure it’s got something to do with the inability to see or hear patterns.

Because I’m not seeing or hearing any, except I’m going cross-eyed more often.

If it continues, I fear my number will be up.

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