Metric vs Imperial

How to thoroughly confuse Germans: Take away the metric system

One of the first things most Europeans struggle with once they come to the United States is the fact that nothing is measured the way they are used to. The metric system – an (almost) universally accepted standard to measure length, area, volume, mass, etc. – is so ingrained in almost everybody’s brains (i.e. everybody outside of the U.S.) that not being able to use it as a set of reference units in daily life throws people for a loop. I speak from experience: Having lived in Tennessee for five years now, I still find myself calculating sometimes. Even the thermometer (note: it’s called thermometer not thermoperial) in our car is still set on Celsius, even though that seems to be one of the easier units to convert in your head.

metric world

The map above shows which countries around the globe use the metric system as their official measurement standard. The big gray spot on the left? That’s where Germans get easily confused. Aside from the U.S. only Myanmar (Burma) and Liberia are holding on to the imperial system. And of course, the UK (where the imperial system originated) and Hong Kong still tolerate their old units.

apples+orangesSince America is in this regard clearly a minority, prepare for Germans to live out their “what we have is so much better” syndrome. That mindset remains very strong with my fellow countrymen and I would like to extend an apology on their behalf at this point. Like so often with misunderstandings, it is because they are comparing apples and oranges. However, Germans do tend to be huge know-it-alls and they would like to think of their habits, customs and traditions as being superior to others.

So, when they first try to make Southeast Tennessee their home they will feel those pangs. Everything will seem off-key for them.

  • How hot is it? 93°? You mean, like, it’s almost boiling?
  • Why don’t two pounds equal one kilogramm here?
  • How big is the house? 4 bedrooms/3 bathrooms/ 2,300 square feet? What’s that in square meters?
  • The fuel consumption of this car is 34 mpg. But I’m only familiar with liters needed to drive 100km …
  • Shoe size? At home I wear a woman’s 38. What’s that here?

This list could be continued ad nauseam. In order to overcome these mathematic hurdles the best thing is to rely on tools. In front of my computer I prefer the conversion widget that’s included in my Mac OS. Alternatively, I use online unit conversion services like these (and many others that are out there on the web):

imperial.metric-butcherTo be sure, though, in our home we still keep a printed list in the kitchen cabinet with some conversion charts. When you’re trying to cook by German recipe and you have to calculate what 180° Celsius are in Fahrenheit (it’s 356°F, btw) you don’t always have time to get on the computer or you may not want to touch your iPhone with greasy hands. The same is true the other way around: If you don’t have a U.S. kitchen measure set and the recipe asks for three cups of flour, you’re out of luck without your conversion chart.

nursing bottleNursing mothers get a break, though. Most feeding bottles come with metric AND imperial scales. That’s a big help and you wouldn’t believe how many times I used these for cooking purposes in our first months here.
Some of the metric-imperial road blocks are rather easy to work around.
For instance, after some time you start accepting a U.S. pound as a metric pound, even though that’s a little off – a metric pound is half a kilogramm (from Greek “chílioi”=1000) and not 453 grams. But it is close.
Also, a yard is getting closer to becoming one meter the longer you live in the States.
However, a gallon is never going to be like 4 liters and a mile just isn’t 1.5km.
That’s where you need some skills in mental arithmetic. For example, when trying to make sense of Fahrenheit temperatures I use this formula: Substract 32 from the °F total, devide the rest by 2 and then round it up a little. This isn’t accurate, because the actual formula is [°C] = ([°F] − 32) × 5⁄9. I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time dividing by 1.8 in my head. So this rule of thumb has served me well.


ch (April'14).2Christian is a cultural trainer, coach, and consultant with extensive experience in working with multinational companies and especially in developing global leaders. He is the founder and owner of Höferle Consulting, where he leads a team of dedicated training, destination services, and expat support specialists. Christian works with global organizations (or those who are going global) to help their employees oversome cultural differences. Typically he only uses the word “normal” in quotation marks and he is an advocate for helping people understand the why of behaviors – not just the dos & don’ts. Find out more about Christian and follow him on Twitter. You can also see him, listen to him, and experience his work – just invite him! Or sign up for the Höferle Consulting newsletter.

5 thoughts on “Metric vs Imperial

  1. I found it kind of complicated that the sales taxes are not included on the price signs that you see on the merchandise. But, der Mensch ist ein Gewohnheitstier….

  2. I will offer this American perception of metric and acceptance.

    Once you have fallen into the pit….it takes about sixty days to start mentally converting your perception to metric. After about two years….a person doesn’t conceive of things in miles or pounds any longer.

    The issue in the US are all these cars and parts….all built with US spec’s…..and the tools involved. These folks simply aren’t going to be talked into giving up on this system easily.

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