Metric Resistance

Do you still think in a weird mix of metric and imperial? Writer Gail Grant finds that 50 years later conversion doesn’t come easily, especially if you’re in a certain age bracket.

November 22, 2022 | | Over the Next Hill

Are you all in with Canada’s conversion to metric? If you are, congratulations, but you are in the minority of the over 55 group in our country.

It’s been over 50 years since Canada’s Metric Commission was established to oversee our metrification; however, a recent survey by Research Co., a Canada-based polling company, reported that 38 per cent of those in the 55 and over age bracket would happily return to the imperial system. (Not surprisingly, this number decreases as respondents get younger.)

Furthermore, a half century later, 80 per cent of Canadians continue to measure their height in feet and inches, 76 per cent determine their weight in pounds, while 59 per cent still measure oven temperature in Fahrenheit. But for linear dimensions, speed and outdoor temperature, metric is the way most Canadians prefer to go. Really? For me, this is an eye-opener.

I still think in Fahrenheit for inside and outside temperatures, and visualize floor space in square feet and fields in acres rather than metres and hectares. I studiously ignore the madly flipping gauge on the pump at the gas station, stopping when the handle jerks. And in spite of the fact that all speed limit signs in the country were changed to kilometres per hour in 1977, I still mentally translate them to miles per hour.

Thinking about it, I haven’t converted at all.

My smarter friends tell me that metric is a more efficient way of measuring, but I just can’t seem to get there. Visualizing a foot comes naturally, but nothing registers when I try to picture 30 centimetres. And on the golf course, I can’t imagine asking someone, “How many metres to the pin?” Not only would it sound downright weird, but that game truly doesn’t need more complications.

Just for fun, take a look at the awkward hodgepodge of containers in your kitchen. A quick look through my fridge turned up volumes of 177ml (pickled ginger), 148 ml (mint sauce), 8.8 oz / 250 g (coffee), and the one I found most interesting, a Compliments (the “proudly Canadian” manufacturing arm of Sobeys) jar of coconut oil contains 404 ml. Wouldn’t 500 ml, or even 400, somehow make more sense?

This is apparently the result of manufacturers creating containers that work in the massive American market. The U.S. is one of only three countries around the globe still on the imperial system (the other two are Myanmar and Liberia). But if you’re travelling to the States, remember, those gas prices look so cheap because a standard imperial gallon is about 20 per cent bigger than an American one.

Helen Mason emigrated from Scotland to Canada in 1966 in her mid-20s. She quickly resumed her teaching career in her new country, specializing in K to 8, but it wasn’t without challenges. “In the beginning I jumped in at the deep end, learning the night before what I was going to teach the next day,” says Helen. “In Scotland at the time, weight was measured in the avoirdupois system. For example, one stone equalled 14 pounds.

“My Canadian students were focused on learning the imperial system; I certainly didn’t want to add to their confusion,” she says.

Helen worked to learn the imperial system, but when she was forced to switch to metric, she did it reluctantly. “The imperial system served me well over the years, and still does. My old cookbooks use teaspoon and cup measurements, so by and large I stick with the imperial system in the kitchen, although I’m now comfortable with my car speedometer registering kilometres, and I think distances in metric.”

There was a time when the road signs in my little community boldly declared 25 maximum. Come on! That was too much of a dawdle even for the most cautious driver. We later learned it had been a mixup in speed conversions. The 40 maximum we now see makes much more sense.

People may be right about the logic of the metric system, but my mind wanders to the delightful metaphors that are still part of our speech patterns. We still go that heroic “extra mile.” Offer a “cup of kindness.” Feel “ten feet tall.” And “an ounce of prevention” is still worth “a pound of cure.” There is no confusion about what any of those mean, but what does the metric child call an inch worm? These figures of speech are ingrained in my world.

My friend Bernie Rochon is one of those marvellous men who enthusiastically takes on full kitchen duties, much to the delight of his partner, Pat. “My cooking has evolved beyond precise measurements,” he says. “For me, it’s more fun to think of a pinch, a dollop or a splash when I’m creating in the kitchen.”

There you have it. We have found our workaround.

About the Author More by Gail Grant

Gail Grant is a freelance writer who lives in Palgrave.

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