Waiter Anton Durzi sees it every day — a dinner bill that doesn’t add up.

This week, someone added one plus six and got . . . one!

“I know it’s supposed to be seven,” says Durzi, a server at Pangaea, the upscale Yorkville restaurant. “People don’t know how to add.”

Basic numeracy skills are so wonky that restaurants routinely double-check bills at the end of a shift. When the numbers are wrong, says Pangaea co-owner Peter Geary, it’s important to figure out the customer’s intentions.

For instance, one diner recently added a $23 tip to a $158 bill and then added it up to $180, a dollar short.

“He obviously wanted to leave a $23 tip,” concluded Geary, who adjusted the total to reflect this.

Even in an age when BlackBerrys and iPhones have calculators and apps to figure out tips, customers still mess up.

According to a 2003 national study of numeracy by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, 55 per cent of Canadians don’t possess the math skills essential for daily living — totalling distances on a map, following a recipe, handling money and budgets. High levels of numeracy are linked to a country’s economic success.

A restaurant remains one of the few places where people have to perform basic calculations — figuring out percentages for tips, adding the gratuity to the total, divvying up the bill among a group of diners.

Large parties sometimes struggle with figuring out who owes what. A restaurant, which charges a 16-per-cent gratuity for large groups, will happily provide individual bills to reduce the chaos.

Geary is considering obtaining a credit-debit machine that has tip calculations included so customers, particularly after a few drinks, won’t have to do any mental arithmetic at all.

It’s not just customers who struggle, says Geary. Younger servers, raised with calculators and computer programs, had a harder time doing mental arithmetic, says Geary, adding, “We couldn’t ask anyone under 30.”

He recruited a senior staff member to calculate taxes on bills when the restaurant’s computer went down.

The struggle occurs elsewhere too.

Home Depot staff are cautious when people bring in pieces of paper with room dimensions scribbled on them.

“The average customer does not know how to calculate square footage,” says spokesperson Tiziana Baccega. “And you need to know how to take measurements.”

The store will send installation staff to customers’ homes in the interests of precision.

“It offers protection to the customer, and to us, that there isn’t a boo boo and it’s going to cost an extra grand,” says Baccega.

The national numeracy study showed that those over 66 had the poorest math skills. Those with the best skills were people aged 26 to 35 with university degrees.

Mental arithmetic is something we need to practice in order to keep up our skills, says David Ansari, a psychology professor at the University of Western Ontario.

“My calculating skills aren’t as good as when I was in primary school because I don’t have everyday practice.”

Ansari, an expert in how children learn math, says he’s a fan of old fashioned “drill and kill” methods of teaching math basics — not just problem-solving — because “arithmetic is what we need in everyday life.”

Some people just don’t have a good “number sense,” says Earl Woodruff, a professor of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto. They know the proper procedures and steps to make a calculation but don’t employ them, he says, adding anyone with math phobia would do these simple tasks poorly out of fear.

It’s not surprising that bar and restaurant tabs get botched when there’s alcohol involved.

“Two drinks will do that to you,” he says.

Restaurant owners Adrian Ravinsky and David Stewart made the decision to write bills out by hand when they opened 416 Snack Bar two months ago because they didn’t want to fork out $5,000 for a computer program.

Both in their mid-20s, with years of experience waiting tables, they found the math no challenge.

“As servers we do sums in our heads every day. These are just simple mathematical skills,” says Ravinsky, who says math was not his best subject in high school. They include the tax in prices to keep things simple and customers appreciate the charm of handwritten bills.

They’ve hired staff “with intellectual confidence” to handle computations, but sometimes, on a busy night, Ravinsky will have to tot up the bill for a flustered bartender handling multiple orders.

The most common way people mess up their bills is when each person in a group figures out their costs and tosses it into a pot.

“There is usually one coordinator of the bill and this poor guy gets screwed,” says Ravinsky.

Anyone can slip up now and again. Recently Stewart handed a customer $8 change from a $20 bill to pay for a $13 sandwich.

“I caught it quickly,” laughs Stewart.

A recent study in The Journal of Applied Social Psychology showed customers appreciated it when examples of 15-per-cent and 20-per-cent tips were printed on restaurant bills. Diners who received the customized bills tipped 2 per cent more than those with regular bills.

While the study set out to prove only that a “gratuity example” affected tipping, Professor John Seiter of Utah State University, who led the study, says it did raise the issue of whether those diners with the regular bills were mathematically challenged.

It seems university professors are not immune. One evening, rushing to the theatre, Seiter made a quick calculation on a bill in a dark restaurant. His favourite server followed him to the door to ask if something was wrong and he discovered he had left no tip at all.

“I was horrified — and gave her a generous tip.”

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Source: healthzone.ca – http://goo.gl/r7Idl