America Is Not Ready for the Metric System

America Is Not Ready for the Metric System Featured Image

In STEM spaces, metric is used for just about every calculation. This contrasts quite harshly with day-to-day life in the US, where we regularly use units like Fahrenheit, feet, miles, ounces, and pounds. That said, it shouldn’t be that hard to get folks to in America to convert, right?

Table of Contents


As someone who has been in STEM spaces for some time now, I’ve grown to appreciate the metric system for its simplicity and consistency, and I’ve even found myself making fun of the US for being one of the only countries not to adopt it. Yet, I recently had an experience that has somewhat shifted my perspective on the matter, though I’m still very much in favor of switching over. The story goes something like this:

Recently, as you might know, my daughter was born prematurely at 34 weeks and 3 days. While we were in the NICU waiting for her to be ready to head home, we were inundated with information about how to care for a premature baby. Part of this flood of information included a variety of units of measurement. For example, when a baby is born, their height and weight is reported in imperial units. For my daughter, those numbers were 5 pounds (lb) 9 ounces (oz) and 17.17 inches.

Of course, there are other measurements that take place. For example, your baby might have their heartbeat measured in beats per minute (bpm) or their body temperature in Fahrenheit (°F).

Then, when you start to think about things like feeding the baby, volume measurements come into play. In the US, we often talk about feeding babies in ounces (oz). However, at the hospital, it was much more common to hear about volume in terms of milliliters (mL). In our case, we left the hospital with the expectation that our baby would be eating 45 mL of breast milk every 3 hours.

What’s the Big Deal?

Whenever we visited the NICU, we were given updates on our daughter’s progress. For example, there was a period of time when our daughter was only taking 20 mL or so per feeding. Over time, they would up the amount until they were comfortable that our daughter could handle regular feedings at home.

The problem was that we regularly had to communicate this information to a variety of people. For example, if we spent enough time in the NICU, there would sometimes be a shift change. During that time, the new nurse would come talk to us about our daughter’s progress. Sometimes, we would relay our daughter’s feeding progress or discuss challenges related to feeding during these interactions. As you can probably imagine, this involved telling the nurse how much our daughter had eaten, which sometimes went like this:

Our daughter was only able to eat about 15 ounces this time around. Is that okay?

Other times, the conversation would go like this:

Today, our daughter ate 25 milligrams per feeding. Do you think she’s ready to eat more?

And I can even recall some phone calls with family that went like this:

Yeah, our daughter is doing great! She’s up to 30 millimeters a feeding.

Over the handful of days she was in the NICU, these conversations were incredibly common and gave me a chuckle every time. Of course, given the context, it’s pretty obvious what was meant in each conversation, but the lack of correct units got me thinking about a world where people are constantly mixing up units because of how similar they sound.

Is This a Real Problem?

After Googling around a bit, I couldn’t really find anyone complaining about this issue with the metric system, which makes me believe it’s a challenge unique to Americans. That’s not to say that if the US switched over to metric in schools that kids wouldn’t immediately get the difference, but it’s something the wider population would struggle with for a few generations.

This is something I actually saw when I was in England, where folks my age didn’t really understand Fahrenheit despite older generations still using it. As a result, I decided to look around to see how England handled the transition, and I found some really interesting comments.

From my experience, the older generations tend to use imperial, or hop between the two, whereas the younger generations tend to use solely metric. This tends to be true for Fahrenheit and Celsius.

However, it is never that clear cut.

I measure small distances in meters, centimetres and milimeters. For longer distances I use miles.

When cooking I measure weight in grams and kilograms. When talking about people I use stones and pounds, and possibly even ounces.

Height is feet and inches.

Petrol is measured in litres when I get it from the pump into my car, however I will measure how many ‘miles to the gallon’ my car will do.

So yes, British people will use both Fahrenheit and Celsius, and there are numerous other things we will measure in a plethora of ways!

Michael MayOpens in a new tab.

So, as expected, there was never really a full adoption of the metric system in England, at least in day-to-day use. That said, it does seem like the change was able to occur, so I wondered what was stopping the US. Turns out, this is a very heated topic. Here’s a quick summary of the takes I’ve seen:

  • It’s very expensive to switch. Imagine replacing every road sign and mile marker.
  • Other places are just as arbitrary with their use of units. Canadians measure height in feet and inches. The British measure weight in stones. Americans buy pop in liters.
  • Culturally, Americans don’t really care to have political capital wasted on the switch.
  • American handymen claim the imperial system is nicer for fractional measurements (e.g., 12 has more divisors than 10, so feet are often easier to divide).
  • American bakers seem to prefer measurements in volumes rather than using a scale or balance. They also claim ratios are easier when dealing with volumes (e.g., one cup of this and half a cup of that).
  • Imperial units are more human (e.g., Fahrenheit serves roughly as a gauge of temperature from 0 to 100 for day-to-day human use).

Ultimately, I don’t really buy into any of these arguments except the cost of time and money. Personally, I find the metric system easier to use, but most of my experience with it is through conversion. For instance, folks like to run 5K races here in the US. I don’t really have a good idea how long a kilometer is, but my brain quickly translates this as “about 3 miles.” Comically, I bet “5K in miles” is an absurdly common Google search.

At the same time, my recent experience with folks mixing up milliliters, millimeters, and milligrams has led me to believe that metric might be an equally confusing system for different reasons. Though, again, I can’t seem to find any evidence of this being a problem elsewhere. However, this is this nice list of common mistakes people make while using the metric systemOpens in a new tab.. I wonder if there are similar issues in the imperial system.

At any rate, I realize this deviates from my usual coding articles, but I’m quite busy raising my first child and this topic seemed funny. Hope you liked it! Now, I better get back to work! Take care.

P.S. don’t get me started on cubic feet (or rather centum cubic feed or CCF) vs. gallons. I cannot stand the way water usage is reported by water companies.

Jeremy Grifski

Jeremy grew up in a small town where he enjoyed playing soccer and video games, practicing taekwondo, and trading Pokémon cards. Once out of the nest, he pursued a Bachelors in Computer Engineering with a minor in Game Design. After college, he spent about two years writing software for a major engineering company. Then, he earned a master's in Computer Science and Engineering. Today, he pursues a PhD in Engineering Education in order to ultimately land a teaching gig. In his spare time, Jeremy enjoys spending time with his wife, playing Overwatch and Phantasy Star Online 2, practicing trombone, watching Penguins hockey, and traveling the world.

Recent Posts