American Culture and the Metric System: Part II

Last week I just wanted to report on what I discovered through my poll on American culture and metric system adoption without mucking it up with my observations and opinions. I certainly didn’t want to express any of that prior to launching the poll. That didn’t seem sporting.

My observations thus far

Based on the things I’ve read and people I’ve spoken with regarding this subject, I get a few different reactions:

  1. Wow, I had no idea we’d gotten so far behind.
  2. A negative knee-jerk response to being asked to change something an offer of a quickly-grabbed-at reason why we shouldn’t change (heritage is the one caught most often).
  3. We’re the greatest country in the world and we don’t have to change.

Someone did write-in “arrogance” in the metric system poll a couple of weeks ago and I know it’s something I’ve heard directly from people myself (see number three above).

Let’s take a moment to explore that. By definition, arrogance means “having or revealing an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities.” Is that the boat we’ve gotten ourselves into? Certainly some folks seem to be paddling in that direction.

We’re no longer at the top of some of the good lists

Unfortunately, we’re rapidly losing any claim we might have to being “the best” in a number of critical areas as I’ve mentioned before in this blog:

As I was writing this, I got curious about where we are in terms of patents (certainly a case could be made whether this is an appropriate measure) but I thought it would be an interesting data point.

Looking at the Wikipedia entry (the World Intellectual Property Organization page has the information spread out a lot more) in 2011 we ranked third in number of patent applications behind Japan and China (no surprise there) and second in patents granted (behind Japan).

An interesting data point listed for 2007 (the only year for which this is listed on the page) indicates “Resident filings per million population” also has us ranked third after Japan and South Korea.


We are at the top of this obesity list

For those of you who are saddened that we are no longer first in the above categories, we do apparently excel in a different area: obesity. A recent article by PBS illustrates the sorry story of our self-reported weight problems.

A world-traveling author speaks

Moving away from statistics and back to the culture issue I started with, I did manage to locate someone who has some insight on American culture. Lance Johnson has produced a book for non-U.S. folks about what they can expect upon hitting our soil. Titled What Foreigners Need to Know About America from A to Z: How to Understand Crazy American Culture, People, Government, Business, Language and More. (And, yes, the book is as comprehensive as its title.)

Johnson, who has visited 81 different countries, had to include an entire chapter on measurement which, in part, begins:

As you probably know, Americans can be stubborn about some things. The way he measure things is a good example. Nations began to adopt the metric system in the 1840s, and by 1900 most commercially advanced countries of the world had adopted it…The U.S. has never fully converted to it, even with nudging by government and business.

While the above quote relates specifically to the metric system, he points out in other sections of his book some of our other propensities:

At the opposite extreme, 80 percent of Americans emphasized the importance of personal freedom and individual rights compared to just 30 percent of Asians.

He also points out:

About half believe it is very important to know about the cultures and customs of others in order to successfully compete in a global economy, yet from my experience Americans are quite lacking in this area.

He seems to have hit that nail on the head.

Not doomed by our past

However, I don’t think we’re doomed by our past and we now have to constantly adapt to a rapidly-changing environment. Within that context, the metric system would be a fairly easy adjustment since it’s based on logic. At that point we can finally properly communicate with the rest of the world. (The Top 10 Reasons Why Now is the Right Time for the United States to Convert to the Metric System)

In coming months I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this topic as new information comes my way.


8 thoughts on “American Culture and the Metric System: Part II

  1. Not sure how you tie in obesity rates with the use of USC! But that is highly misleading and simply not true!

    By the way, one of us read today that MEXICO just surpassed the US in obesity rates, though this may have been adults and think you cite children. In all-metric Mexico (more or less except for some of our influence) with the perfect SI system, how is this possible?

  2. As an Australian, it seems to me that one thing that holds back change in the USA (and also the UK) is the feeling that they are the best, and therefore can’t learn from others. When you come from a smaller country you don’t have that luxury. If there’s a better way to do things there’s a greater chance of taking it up.

    When Australia introduced the metric system, one important inducement was the fear that if we didn’t change, Australia would be left behind. It wasn’t a question of whether to change, but how to do it best. In 1970, it appeared to us that the rest of the world was either metric or was changing to the metric system, including the UK and the USA. We went ahead with our change; you guys didn’t.

    • Funny, we keep getting blasted for being “afraid to change.” You are saying there was a sense of being “afraid not to change,” down under?

      In terms of industrial might, the United States *is* number one, and we were a much bigger percentage of world economy in the ’70s. So, as far as purchasing power and the goods we produce, it is a harder task – we argue unnecessary – for such a large economy to change.

      Not sure where Australian industry is on the scale of world producers. Think the UK is #8, and that you are about the size of the Canadian industrial complex?

      Not everyone in the United States goes around shouting “U-S-A, U-S-A! We’re num-ber one, we’re num-ber one!” Our industrial might is, in large part, a result of our fighting in and winning World War II.

  3. Yes. It’s easier to change if there are fewer people. In 1970, Australia only had about 12.5 million people, so when a Senate select committee unanimously recommended that we switch to the metric system, there was little objection. The question wasn’t whether to change but how to go about it. In the United States and Great Britain, by contrast, there are organised pressure groups fighting to keep the traditional measurements

    • But surely there were those who opposed an arbitrary change from one system to another? It is hard to believe all 12.5 millions were all in favor of changing over.

      • Yes, of course there were opponents, but they got little or no traction. The only time I heard of them was just before we changed over our road signs in 1974, when some group in the state of Victoria predicted that there would be carnage on the roads when the signs changed.

        However, that did not stop or even delay the change, which went very smoothly, and there was no rise in the death rate on the roads.

        Also, remember that it wasn’t an arbitrary change. A democratically elected Government decided that this change was in the best interests of the country after an all-party committee unanimously recommended it. The decision to change to the metric system couldn’t have been more clear-cut.

      • The resistance in the United Kingdom are both cultural and industrial (though, as a member of the Commonwealth, we would have thought there would also be a very strong tie in a country that still has a Union Jack in its flag).

        In the United States, they are more due to infrastructure and familiarity.

        Countries with strong ties to tradition, like Japan, Russia, China, have ties to their traditional units because they are written into parts of their history.

        The United States has a large amount of immigration, yet, even here, there is a great deal of adoption of USC units by immigrants, even those that haven’t mastered the English language one will see adopting USC units. Surprisingly, the use of metric I have seen are often by English-speaking immigrants from countries such as India and Australia.

        The United States has a great deal of cultural influence through music and movies, as well as industry such as automotive and aeronautic, so one will encounter the English units in almost every country on Earth.

        We wonder if Australia would have been so quick to adopt metric had they known that the United States would almost completely reject it ,and would have reconsidered back in the ’70s.

        The country of Canada is even more divided, we’d say, than the UK is (although their roadways are metric, if not their railways).

        While many will argue that metric is making “huge inroads” here, we would argue that inch-pound is making more inroads in the world at large than vice versa.

        Why do so few pause to consider that the simple pocket calculator, a 99-cent item or a free app or computer hotkey, has rendered the great advantage of metric almost completely moot?

      • Yes, I agree that the United States has a huge cultural influence around the world. However, this is not always enough to counteract other forces. Sometimes US culture is seen as a shining example (for instance, freedom of speech); at other times it is seen as a terrible warning (American gun culture). In the matter of weights and measures, the superiority of the metric system has been decisive in prompting its adoption almost universally.

        English speaking people from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Ireland use the metric system as a natural part of our language. This includes those who, like me, were brought up with the older measures. For example, I go to the shops and buy kilos of tomatoes, carrots, beans and meat as naturally as I bought a half a pound of butter when I was a child. Even my late mother had no trouble buying litres of orange juice when the metric conversion took place. As for temperatures in Celsius, they have become so much a part of our life that Fahrenheit temperatures are quite foreign to Australians under the age of 45.

        Would we have been so willing to change to the metric system if we had known that America wasn’t going to change? Perhaps not. But the fact is that we and all the Commonwealth countries did make this change. Only Great Britain was a partial exception. Now the United States is almost alone in adhering to the older measures. It does create difficulties for you to be out of step with the rest of the world and that is why a significant number of Americans want to change this.

        I don’t think I could sway your opinion, but I can assure you as one who experienced this change that it’s really nothing to be afraid of. All countries who adopted the metric system had to change their weights and measures. It’s not as big a deal as you might think.

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