San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
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The measure of an expat: how many 'varas' in a mile?

See also: Going out on ‘un date’ – the cultural quirks of romance

A couple of years ago, my family and I took a road trip in the Deep South. We rented a car in the airport, entered the address on the GPS and set out to drive to our hearts’ content. That is, until the GPS started speaking in that cryptic language from the outskirts of reason: the U.S. system of measurement.

“In 400 feet, turn right.” We all looked at each other, quickly going over our rusty memories of the rules of conversion. “400 feet, that’s like 150 meters?” “No, I think it’s more than that. It should be the next one over.” “No, it’s this one, it’s this one.” “Turn now!” “Now?” “NOOOOW.” Tires squealing, people bouncing around like crash test dummies, the GPS indicating the next exit: “In 0.6 miles, turn left.” Are you kidding me? 60 percent of 1.6 kilometers…

We eventually managed to pull over and change the settings, but the experience was just one of countless examples of the cultural misalignment that occurs because the United States is one of only three countries in the world that have not adopted the International System of Units as their official metric system, the other two being Myanmar and Liberia (according to the CIA World Factbook, although the United Kingdom continues to use imperial units for certain measures).

This provides for all sorts of goofy interactions for me as a Costa Rican in the United States, like the day when I ordered the smallest beer on the menu (4 ounces) and got royally mad at the waiter for bringing me what appeared to be a shot-glass worth of alcohol, or the day someone told me her New York apartment was 350 square feet and I asked if it was a two bedroom. Not to mention the myriad times I have failed to wear appropriate clothing based on Fahrenheit forecasts or my failure to react when guys try to impress me by mentioning their height.

You might say this is my fault: I should have learned this by now. And in my defense, I have made some painstaking progress. But there are things that are simply hard to wrap your head around if they are not formally taught to you, especially – and this is the crucial part – if you already learned another system that was based on a different set of criteria (ahem, on mathematical logic).

I am normally non-judgmental when it comes to social norms and behaviors. In general, I refuse to categorize cultural variations as superior or inferior. Here is where my stern relativism gives way: There are eight ounces in a cup, two cups in a pint, two pints in a quart, and four quarts in a gallon. There are twelve inches in a foot, three feet in a yard and 5,280 feet in a mile (or 1,760 yards). There are also sixteen ounces in a pound and 2,000 pounds in a ton (a short ton). How am I expected to learn this?! Particularly when I keep translating it all in my head: “OK, so gas is $3.50 a gallon and a gallon is like 3.8 liters and we have 200 kilometers to go, so will someone please call my math teacher?”

It’s not surprising that the U.S. has a unique system; most countries have had their own methods at some point. Just ask anyone in the coffee business in Costa Rica what the volume of a cajuela is, or how much they can get for a quintal or a fanega. Many people still describe property in manzanas, while I suspect vara (the slang for “thing”) might derive from the unit that is roughly equivalent to the yard – also known for the venerated expression meterse en camisa de once varas, which basically means to get oneself into a mess.

These rare or discontinued units of measure must not be confused with the imprecise or inaccurate units that are prevalent in all languages, such as the culinary pinch of salt confusing novel cooks everywhere. In Costa Rica, we have the infamous Guanacaste kilometer, which is more like two kilometers or five, depending on who happens to be giving you directions.

It’s easy to see why metrification, the process of gradually converting to the international system, is slow and fraught with setbacks.  It’s taken other countries centuries to let go of their traditional units, and not just because it means learning new words: a system of units entails intuition, a complicated process of representation that takes place even without our awareness. I don’t have to picture a quarter of a liter to know what 250ml look like, the same way that no American has to calculate 60 percent of 1,760 yards to know when to take a left in 0.6 miles. Like with so many other social conventions, we end up believing that our system makes sense, although what we actually mean is that it makes sense to us.

Perhaps there’s a metaphor hidden in all of this. Perhaps our difficulty in learning new units of measure is a telltale sign of our aversion to change, even in the presence of an option we can rationally recognize as an improvement. Ways of thinking are sticky, for Americans, for Costa Ricans, for people all over the world. But one of the wonderful things about human beings is that, though we are conditioned by our past, we are not predestined by it. We can change, and for the better. We can reach consensus on new ways of thinking. In fact, it is not a minor feat of civilization that we pretty much universally use the decimal system for arithmetic calculations.

So, I’ll continue to get hopelessly lost when following directions in the United States. I’ll continue to get into a camisa de once varas when placing my orders at restaurants. I trust that my children, or my grandchildren, or my great-grandchildren, will be able to improvise a ball game with an American kid and that they will understand each other when drawing the field.

Read previous Please Send Coffee! columns here

Raquel Chanto is a lawyer and policy wonk trying to survive international bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. In her monthly column “Please Send Coffee!” she explores aspects of Costa Rican culture and how they contrast with life abroad.

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I was raised with the Imperial System of measurements and it is just as hard to adjust to the metric. I think many of us still mentally convert to imperial even after so many years with metric. It doesn’t help to know the kms/liter when we were brought up with miles/gallon as a measure of a car’s efficiency, and so on. When Hattie Jacques, a British comedienne, appeared on a Canadian TV quiz show to mark Britain’s change from their old currency to pounds and new pence, a Canadian speaker asked what all the fuss was about since their were 100 new pence in a pound. Hattie replied, “That is why I am here. You can tell me how it works and I will go back and explain it to the Brits.”

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Moving from the US to Costa Rica, I struggle with this daily, only in reverse. And it’s not just meters/feet, kilometers/miles…. it extends to cooking as well. Food items are typically packaged in grams so there is always conversions that need to be done when preparing my favorite recipes. After a year and half in Costa Rica it’s only a minor inconvenience now and I just take it in stride.

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Daniel Jackson

I can understand struggling for the first few days, but after that there is simply no excuse. That is you problem, doing conversions. That is the surest way to stay stupid. You need to immerse yourself in metric units and forget USC ever existed.

Maybe it is time to burn those old recipes and get some new metric ones.

So much for American superiority and exceptionalism.

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Jan Prusinski

As a Civil Engineer in the U.S. it was amusing to read your article on metric vs. Imperial units. I normally see it from the other side, where I have to convert to metric.

As an engineer, the metric system makes eminent sense…100 cm in a meter, 1000 g in a kg, etc. Why would a country want a system there are 5,280 feet in a mile (unless you wish to measure that in yards, and it’s 1,760 yards). And don’t get me started on multi-dimension numbers I use every day in engineering, e.g. pounds per cubic inch vs. tons per cubic yard…they are both a measure of “density” but you need to multiply the first by a factor of 46,656/2,000 to get the second! I really pity the poor mechanical engineers who have to struggle with the esoteric “British thermal unit” or “horsepower” (horsepower?…isn’t this 2015?) instead of “joules” and “megawatts.”

And, by the way, units of mass, such as grams and kilograms, are really not the same as our Imperial units of “force,” pounds and tons. My mass will still be 90 kg whether I’m on a Costa Rican beach, on top of Cerro Chirripó, or on the moon, but my 200 lbs will only weigh 33 lbs on the moon (I kind of like that!).

So I fully supported the efforts in the first Bush administration to “hard convert” the U.S. to metric. The Federal Highway Administration, and many other agencies, were preparing to do just that. Many state departments of transportation spent probably millions of dollars getting ready to convert. Then people, industry and Congress had second thoughts. Though the metric system made sense both numerically, and from a “get in sync with the rest of the world” point of view, the visceral reality was that metric was truly a different language that 300 million people would be forced to learn (as well as countless industries, where “hard conversion” actually meant “hard dollars.”). The government conversion was rescinded, years of preparatory efforts (and associated $’s) trashed, and it will be a cold day in Costa Rica before the U.S. tries that again.

I personally could feel that pain, too. I attend many engineering conferences with a strong international component. Often, technical presentations are given in SI (i.e. metric) units. When I see graphs that show, say, the time development of concrete strength from “3.5 to 35 megapascals in one month,” I’m trying to do the mental conversion (or now…a Google “translation” on my phone) to “500 to 5,000 pounds per square inch.” I can’t relate in a quick, instinctive way to metrics (even though in college, courses were taught in both systems). Sure after a few years I probably could, but really, it would take a generation of education, and kids being brought up/immersed in the system to really “convert” the nation (witness the British who still try to cling to THEIR old system). And in the interim, if we were to convert, you probably would see a lot of middle-aged people making a lot more U-turns when the GPS gave them metric instructions.

So, I’m traveling to Costa Rica this summer; I’ll have to get used to Spanish and metric, use the Google translator liberally for both, and be happy to live life for a time at a slower pace. Then I can return to Texas, 1,480 miles away (or 7.8 million feet, or 2.6 million yards), where you can legally travel 136.7 km/hr on some of our highways!

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It is correct that the U.S. does not use “Imperial” units, but a similar system, the U.S. Customary system. The term “Imperial” was casually being used as a catch-all, as they both derive from the British Empire.

Mr. Jackson is incorrect to say that I cannot “comprehend or visualize” metric units. I can both comprehend and visualize them perfectly well. However, when using one system nearly every day, but being exposed to the other system only occasionally, my “feel” for commonly used measurements is certainly more intuitive using the U.S. Customary system (however awkward that system may be).

As for his tirades on non-metric users, Americans and the U.S., it is unfortunate that light-hearted and self-deprecating comments would elicit such hostility.

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Daniel Jackson

Imperial units are illegal in the US. The US has their own version of pre-metric units that precedes imperial. Imperial was a British reform carried out in 1824 that the US never adopted. The version of pre-metric units used in the US is called United States Customary or USC.

It is hard to believe that anyone who calls themselves a professional can not comprehend or visualise metric units, especially one who attends conferences and is exposed to them. I can’t imagine what others may think when they know (if they know) you have to convert to Luddite units in order to give the dimension meaning. I’m sure even if something is not spoken, that the others have to think that those gringos are not as exceptional as they claim. If Americans are suppose to be the best at everything, then every American should at least be bilingual enough to be comfortable speaking and understand metric measurement and not clamouring for a translation.

It is no wonder that industry has to go to metric countries to get designs in metric built or even hire foreign engineers to do the metric design work. Who would trust an American to get it right? But as for the US metricating, it may be too late. Everyone knows the US’s days are numbered and it is just a matter of a short time before the US economy collapses entirely and nations with people who can adjust quickly, like China and Germany are at the top. So, continue to feel sorry for yourself and find excuses and maybe find someone to pity you for your situation, but it won’t help when you are starving and cold and your neighbour is hunting you for your last gram of hidden bread. The mistakes you made in the past, no matter how trivial you think they are do come back to haunt you and haunt you fiercely they will.

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James Baldwin

LOL! I remember moving to Costa Rica and having to learn everything in reverse of what you just mentioned, so, I feel your pain. I especially couldn’t get used to the language at first with everything having a feminine and masculine conotation. I wanted to change to rules of Spanish and make “el agua” be “la agua”. Just made more sense. If it ends in “a” it have a “la”. A veces es “un” problema.

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Ken Morris

Good article, as usual.

Many years ago, when there was a serious campaign on in the US to get everybody to switch to metric, I read an article opposing the change in (of all places) a liberal journal. The author conceded that, yes, metric is more logical and blah blah, but opposed it on the grounds that it is less humane. The foot, e.g., apparently had its origin in the length of a human foot. The march of modernity has been about standardizing and rationalizing every damn thing, and in the big picture you have to ask whether this is really good. Is it always good to standardize and rationalize everything?

I don’t have a strong opinion one way or another, but still see the author’s point.

And lest our metric friends become too smug, I invite them to read the ml. on a Coke can–355. Now, why choose this number? Because it corresponds to 12 ounces. Metric actually hasn’t won, although it has allowed drink manufacturers to sell 330 ml. cans that look like 355 ml. for the same price.

Or I invite them to Nicaragua, where varas and other such things really are used.

Or to Costa Rica, where any block, no matter how long or short, is considered 100 meters.

So this metric thing is rational? Yeah right.

And there is the puzzler from the old NPR “Car Talk”: Where in your household does 100 minus 50 equal 20?

It’s your microwave. Somebody forget to tell the clock makers that minutes needed to be divided by 100 instead of 60.

Or maybe years need a more rational division into days. Our 365 of them don’t exactly work.

Meanwhile, pi is one weird number, isn’t it? Like 3.14 and continuing . . .

So I say tone down the smugness, and when in doubt, order an imperial pint. You get more.

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I completely relate to your article. I have trouble calculating onzas y gramos as well at picturing manzanas y acres. My younger brother who visited me from CR struggled following the 400 feet warning from the GPS.

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Daniel Jackson

Why do you need to calculate anything. Stick with gram and metres only and the problem is solved. While you are struggling, the advanced metric world is moving ahead of you and waiting for the right moment to stomp on you and squash you like a bug.

Set your GPS to metric default and there is need to struggle with units that you don’t need to deal with.

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Actually 480 x4 = 1,920 varas in a mile, I was figuring for the standard 4 varas = 11 ft used in measuring lumber.

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Daniel Jackson

Unlike metric units, all pre-metric units like the vara as well as the “English” had thousands of variations, so it not uncommon for the number of varas in a mile to vary. This is due to the variations in the vara and the mile.

Only the International System is consistent and unvarying.

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480 varas in a mile. A manzana by the way is 100 varas x 100 varas. Varas is an old Spanish measurement, similar vintage to leagues. Thanks for the article!

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