An expatriate’s perspective on metrication

This letter from an expatriate Brit in Switzerland may be of interest. It illustrates very well the frustration felt by many people (not only expatriates) at the insularity and ignorance of so many of our compatriots.

Dear Mr Paice,

I came across your website by chance as I was looking for a BMI chart for British children, in metric. I still haven’t found one, but that’s another story!

I read about your association and its aims with a feeling of empathy and also frustration. It just reminded me how slow UK society has been in adopting the logical and straightforward metric system.

You see, I’ve lived in Switzerland for the last 8 years and here we of course use the metric system all the time. Apart from the obvious buying things by the kilogram or measuring your distances in metres or kilometres, an area (excuse the pun) where the metric system really hits home is in measuring the size of your rooms or the total area of your house. No-one here talks about a 4-bedroom house, although they might talk about a six room house, with a living area of 180m². Just how big is a bedroom that’s 13’3″ by 9’9″?? How can anyone calculate that?

I was born in the mid 60’s, so went through the decimalisation process in infant school. Then we started learning about grams and kilograms, but in everyday life we had to understand imperial measures. You are right, it’s really schizophrenic! What I found astounding is when I talk to my siblings back in England about my weight ( I lost 13 kg) or about the size of the house we’re going to build, they have absolutely no idea what these numbers mean! I can expect this of my mother, who’s 80, but surely those who are still at work must by now have learned!

As a side issue, regarding temperatures, I also grew up with 2 systems. It took the weathermen and women a very long time to switch over, and I still hear them saying 21 celsius, 70 fahrenheit. Although the chart only shows celsius, my mother only takes away the ’70 fahrenheit’ message. It’s the same with the lb & oz. As long as both are shown, people will never switch.

By the way, we live close to the borders with France & Germany and shop cross-border. Most French supermarkets still show prices in French francs as well as Euro! Anyway, I’ve ranted on enough. I can imagine your frustration, and I wish you every success with your campaign.


[name and address withheld]

P.S. my children once asked me why a jar of marmalade weighs 454 g ….

Author: UK Metric Association

Campaigning for a single, rational system of measurement

3 thoughts on “An expatriate’s perspective on metrication”

  1. If the author and his Siblings learned metric back in school in the ’60s, then how is it possible that his siblings have no idea what the numbers mean? Even if they have some exposure to imperial in the market, the majority of products are marked in metric only. They have to notice them. Or do they deliberately pretend they are not there? Even a visit to the doctor would have them being weighed in kilograms. They can see the numbers on the scale and would know what range they are in even if later they find someone to do a conversion.

    I can’t seem to wonder how people can pretend not to know metric when it stares them in the face every day.


  2. In response to Daniel… it’s really more a matter of what you’re used to dealing with. If you don’t make a concious effort to use metric here in the UK then it’s more likely that others will talk to you in imperial. Small retailers will often use imperial (usually because they think it better serves their customers) and there are many places where the use of imperial is completely legal (McDonalds and their Quarter Pounder, Subway and the 6 inch and footlong products – because product descriptions do not fall within metrication laws).

    My own sister who is 37 and is a biology professor at a local university herself converts her weight back into stones after visiting the doctor because that’s what she’s used to hearing!


  3. Also in response to Daniel, I have to point out that we went to school in the 70s, and although we used metric measures at school, in life outside school everything was imperial. I even did my apprenticeship in the early 80’s using lathes that measured in thousandths of an inch!

    The point is, as long as you offer the former system in parallel, whether this be lbs, stone, fahrenheit, or French francs, people have no incentive to learn it or switch. I’m sure that every GP will tell the patient their weight in stones and pounds when they ask. Most bathroom scales show both, but I’m pretty sure that the majority read the imperial values.


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