I ask you to be patient when reading this introduction, because I promise it has a point. In 2010, I was fortunate enough to be a part of a study abroad program in Bonn, Germany. It was wonderful and perhaps some other day I can tell more stories about it, but for now I’ll stick to a story from my first full day there. I was staying in a dorm that had a communal kitchen, and I thought I would go to a supermarket (it was a Rewe for anyone else who has a weird fascination with going into grocery stores in foreign countries) and get some groceries to keep around the dorm. Smart, right? I thought so.
So anyway, I’m browsing near the deli and I see some beautiful German pastrami and I decided I would get that and some stuff to make sandwiches. So I got in line, and that’s when the following interaction took place:
Clerk: “Bitte. Wie kann ich für Sie bekommen?” What can I get for you?
Me: “Guten Morgen. Ich werde die Pastrami haben, bitte.” Good morning. I’ll have the pastrami, please. (all nouns are capitalized in German)
Clerk: “Sehr gut. Wie viel?” Very good. How much?
Me (suddenly realizing I have no idea how to do weights in metric and also didn’t know enough German to charm my way out of the impending awkwardness): “Errrr…ein Kilo, bitte?” Errr..one kilogram, please?
Clerk (in English, because everyone speaks it): “Are you sure? That is a lot.”
Me: “Ja, danke. I mean, yes, thank you.”
Then the clerk proceeded to slice a kilo of pastrami for me, and that was the day I learned that a kilogram translates to about 2.2 pounds. It felt like it took him about an hour to slice it because it was such a clearly obnoxious amount of cured meat. Once I got back to the dorm I told the other folks on the trip that it was community pastrami and to help themselves if they felt like a sandwich. That seemed better than admitting I’m stupid.
Okay, thank you for sticking with me through that. I’m sure it’s not hard to figure out why I told that story, given the title of the article. But just in case, I’ll reiterate. I think about that occurrence every so often and two things come to mind. First, I never spoke very good German, but now I don’t speak much at all and I wish I had been more diligent about it. Second, should the USA join the majority of the world and adopt the metric system?”
This would require about 300 million or so people completely reprogramming themselves to try and learn metric. Very few Americans outside the science and possibly military communities (and maybe drug dealers for weight) have any idea what 13 centimeters, 125 grams, or 27°C are. I’ve brushed up on it because I like to travel internationally and I feel like I could maybe give a decent guess, but not without converting everything in my head first. For example, I know there are about 30 centimeters in a foot, and I know there are about 2.5 centimeters in an inch, so I would say 13 centimeters is probably about 5 inches. (It’s 5.11811 inches according to Google, so I was pretty close.)
It would also be very expensive to update signage. I don’t really care about private companies that would have to redesign labels and what not. I mean taxpayer-funded signs. Road signs, weight signs at shipping yards and truck weigh stations, and literally every piece of government paper that has a customary unit of measurement on it. It would costs millions if not billions of dollars of tax money.
Then there’s just the confusion it would create. Would the NFL suddenly decide to play ball on a 91.44 meter field? Unlikely. Soccer, the most popular sport worldwide, used yards as its unit of measurement because it’s a British game and Great Britain was still on the customary system back then. Same with golf courses; I would imagine they would continue to use yards. But what about baseball? Maybe instead of 90 feet to first, you’d run 27.432 meters? The Toronto Blue Jays already have metric measurements on their outfield walls (pictured), so what’s the harm in just leaning into it? I mean, Japan, Korea, and a whole host of Latin-American nations have huge baseball communities and they all use metric, so we should be able to, too, right?
Plus, while units of measurement for volume, length, and weight are all much more accurate under the metric system, temperature isn’t. One hundred degrees separate the freezing and boiling temperatures of water in the metric system. Using Fahrenheit, there’s a 180-degree separation (32–212°), which means it’s an inherently more accurate reading of the temperature. Plus, I mean, no one will ever be able to convince me that 24° sounds like a beautiful day, even though that would be 75°F. Why would we intentionally switch to a less accurate system?
The United State, Liberia, and Myanmar are the only three countries on Earth that exclusively use the customary system. England and Canada use a bit of customary still, too, but they still mostly use the metric system. In Canada, for example, you use feet when talking about someone’s height, but kilometers when talking about a road trip. Similarly, you use Fahrenheit when cooking, but Celsius when determining what to wear that day.
There are 7.6 billion people on this planet, and about 380 million use the customary system, or 5% of Earth’s population. It would seem that things like international trade and travel would be easier if the USA, Liberia, and Myanmar would just bite the bullet and make the switch. To be fair, in the official United States Weights & Measures, a foot is defined as .3048 meters, so the government already has one foot (bah-dum-tss) out the door.
And the metric system is very easy. Everything is based on nice round numbers like ten and 100. One hundred centimeters in a meter, one thousand meters in a kilometer. One thousand grams to a kilogram, one thousand kilograms in a metric ton. It all just makes sense. It’s a logical system. It would ultimately cut down on costs because companies that sell in the US and in metric markets would only have to print one set of labels, etc. Car companies would only have to put KPH on the speedometer instead of MPH and KPH both. It’s a win-win (win)!
And seriously, the relief on international trade and travel would be fantastic. Imagine going to other places in the world and knowing you can ask the locals “how far is it to the pub?” and they answer in their native units of measurements and you understand it because it’s the same as what you use at home! Or imagine getting a degree in international business and starting your job and actually being able to answer questions like “what is the cost of coffee beans per kilogram” and you not only know the cost but you know what a kilogram is! Insane, right?
There’s no doubt it would take a lot of getting used to, especially for people who are over the age of about 15 or 16 or so when it would go into effect. But in one generation a substantial amount of the populace would be used to it, and in three generations there would be working adults who have no idea what a pound is.
As with most other things in life, the solution lies in compromise. I think a Canadian/British approach is the way to go. Keep feet and inches for around the house stuff like people’s heights and the area of a house, but begin switching to metric for all government things. And keep Fahrenheit because it’s the better temperature system. Eventually, the metric will just sort of take over. And some things will never change. Golf and soccer will always use yards because they’re both very old and very British sports. I would say football will also stick with yards (which it will), but I don’t think football will be a viable sport 100 years from now because of health concerns, so it’s kind of moot.
But Americans already do plenty with the metric system. The 9mm Luger round is the most widely used pistol round in the US, with the possible exception of the .22LR round. Soda comes in 2-liter bottles. You can take a Ford F150 completely apart with a 10mm socket. Serious bakers use weights instead of volume and metric instead of customary because it’s the most accurate way to measure granular solids like flour and sugar. Scientists use metric because it’s international. The US military uses metric for a lot of things. So why not just do it? I love being American almost as much as I love being Texan, but there’s nothing wrong with being a little more global in how we approach things. Don’t worry, I still won’t watch soccer or refuse to wear deodorant or any other European things. But it would be nice to travel to Europe or Mexico or Canada or China and be able to understand the measurements used there.
As an aside, we also need to change the way we do dates. The mm/dd/yyyy way doesn’t make sense to me. It makes more sense to do like the Europeans do and go dd/mm/yyyy. Smallest to largest. Days to years. It just makes more sense to me, and the military does it that way so it wouldn’t take a ton of getting used to.
If you’ve made it all the way through this without taking a nap, please enjoy this video covering the history of the metric system in the United States: