American Units of Measurement (As an International Student)

American Units of Measurement (As an International Student)

Let’s face it: the US loves being just a little different from everyone else. The obvious example? Units of measurement. As an international student from Canada, even I have no clue what’s going on half the time when my friends talk to me and use these weird nonsensical units. And I’ve literally lived on the border between Canada and the States for all my life. After a year here, I’ve finally got a sense of how the two systems of measurement compare and how you can more easily get your bearings with these weird units.

First, we’ve got the distance measurements. These aren’t tooooooo bad… in fact, they’re far from the worst. I’ve come to understand that a kilometer is essentially two-thirds of a mile (it’s 5/8ths, but anyways) and that if you’re just guesstimating, a mile is just a kilometer and a half (1.6, to be precise). Not too hard. Fantastic. How about feet and inches? Well, a foot is about a third of a meter, and an inch is about two and a half centimeters. So, three feet make a meter, and two inches make five centimeters. Also not too bad. Thankfully, I haven’t had any encounters with this following (cursed) unit: the yard. It’s 0.9 meters, so I don’t know what to tell you. That’s gibberish, and I hope you’ll never have to encounter it either. If you do, good luck. Might as well treat it as a meter, to be frank.

Next, let’s talk about measurements for weight. I’m not sure about you, but growing up in Canada, we’ve always used pounds when talking about weight. So, I’ll occasionally actually have to convert pounds to kilograms. As many know, a kilogram is 2.2 pounds. Take that how you will, but that means I’ll basically just divide the weight in pounds by two and then round down as much as I see fit. When talking about my body weight, for example, I’ll just divide my weight by two and then lop off another five. It’s close enough. Then, we’ve got the ounce. It’s around 30 grams, so take that how you will. So, ten ounces is between a third and a fourth of a kilogram – your choice, though it’s a bit closer to a fourth.

And then we get to temperature – you’ll likely be hearing about this one the most. I don’t know what to tell you. You just gotta guess it out. Unless, of course, you want to subtract 32 from Fahrenheit and approximately divide by 2. Honestly, that’s not such a bad strategy. The other way around, just multiply Celsius by two and add 32. Gets you close enough. But if you come from somewhere where the climate is anywhere like Vancouver’s, maybe my personal sense scale will help you: thirties to fifties Fahrenheit is essentially our winter/cold spring/cold autumn temperature, fifties to sixties would be our early fall/late spring temperature, sixties to eighties would be our summer weather, and anything above eighties would be the type of weather you fly out of Vancouver in the winter and into some tropical area to experience (like Hawaii, or maybe Palm Springs). Of course, those are just my general temperature vibes.

Finally, we’ve got the worst type of measurement: volume. Milliliters and liters are so convenient – I’d straight up tell you to keep using them. But of course, your American friends may not be too happy with that, and you’re kinda outnumbered in that respect. Thankfully, because volume and weight are so intrinsically tied together in SI units, they actually translate to ounces the same way: 30 milliliters, just like 30 grams, translates to an ounce. And therefore, ten ounces make somewhere between a third and a fourth of a liter, closer to a fourth. Convenient.

And there you have it. Hopefully, these comparisons are useful enough for you to understand the absolute oddity that is American units of measurement. Take pride in your familiarity with SI (normal and scientific) units as you approach your future in science. But in everyday life, at least for the time being, you may have to follow the old proverb: “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

Or don’t. That’s up to you.