Meaning, Memes & Mathematics

“Oh No! Our table! It’s broken!”

For those not on Tiktok – I should explain. “Sounds” are small audio clips that users can easily attach to play over their short videos. The quote above is the content of a very popular (and charming) one of those sounds.

Now that we’re caught up, many of the videos that opened with the crash of the “Oh no!” sound had no tables breaking. They showed football bloopers, air fryer mishaps, grocery store spills, flooded basements, or even low motivation Tuesday afternoons. Creators took the reaction to one specific situation, noticed its usefulness to generate comedic gold, and “abstracted” it from the specific situation. It became, as all memes do, a formula that could be applied to many (but not all!) novel situations, particularly, amusing disasters. “Our table! It’s broken!” signals a catastrophe. But an adorable one. Now creators knew about the tool, they have a sort of rule in their head:

This all happens in such an automatic, silly, and low stakes way that it is a bit absurd to treat it so seriously. But it speaks to something our brains do automatically, even in our leisure time: we recognize patterns, generalize them, and apply them to new situations.     

And this is what we do in more formal, systematic ways in high school math. More than any specific content – say, factoring polynomials or finding the circumcenter – recognizing patterns and solving problems with rules is what you want to take from your math studies.

This is not to say details aren’t important. Because math vocabulary can be a bit fussy, it can be easy to misuse a symbol. Maybe you see a triangle area question and respond by writing the Pythagorean Theorem? Whoops. A bit cringe, like the crying laugh emoji my daughter makes fun of me for using. One great way to deepen your intuitive understanding of how math language is used is to zoom out to give yourself tools for learning how the symbols on the page are used.

For those who dislike math, or were taught it in uneven ways, the move from specific and concrete to general and abstract is what can make high school math so frustrating. Know that you have what you need to recognize the patterns, and trust that, if you see it enough times, the math you’re learning will soon be berries and cream.