Little Things Abroad: Dealing With Numbers

January 30, 2011

More of a few small notes here on living abroad: dealing with numbers in other countries.

1. Le Système International d’Unités

Recently, a Korean friend of mine raised in the states invited me out to dinner. We were discussing body weight, and I casually mentioned I had lost a few kilograms, now weighing in at 82 kg.

“Ok… but how much is that in pounds?”

I sighed, shaking my head. So many Americans don’t bother to learn the SI units for length or mass, let alone the Celsius temperature scale. Not only is it the standard for most of the world, the fact that the US won’t switch over is pretty arrogant on our part, not to mention inefficient. Kilometers, kilograms, degrees Celsius. I think the US and Canada are the only two countries to use the Imperial system exclusively, with a smattering of inches, miles, and pounds in Britain, South Africa, Ireland, India, Australia, and Hong Kong.

Let us not forget the metric mixup that cost the US hundreds of millions of dollars. Learn SI.

2. No Arabic numerals

Most countries are quite accommodating when it comes to using Arabic numbers for prices, times, distances, etc. But not always so. In fact, I’m surprised the US, as a major cultural melting pot, doesn’t use Arabic numbers on its coins. In some places in China and Japan you’ll see the characters for numbers: 一, 二, 三, 四, 五, 六, 七, 八, 九, 十. I don’t have any experience in Middle Eastern nations (ironically, where our numbers come from), but I can’t imagine travelers not recognizing what we know to be 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 around the world.

3. Counting to three

This never even occurred to me until I saw this scene from Inglorious Basterds, where the simple mistake of Americans indicating three drinks with three fingers, as opposed to two fingers and a thumb, gave them away. I wondered… could this practice be different across cultures? As an American, I always start counting with my index, followed by the middle, ring, and pinky, and only use the thumb when indicating “five”.

4. Denominations of money


This depends entirely on the currency and inflation of the respective country – I can only imagine what it’s like in ZImbabwe – but I’ve noticed in Japan and Korea people and ATMs tend to display amounts in units of 10,000. That is, if you’re looking at a Korean ATM for the first time and want to withdraw 1,000,000 Won, you should press the button for 100만 (万 in Japanese). The same would be true for indicating amounts with your fingers: two fingers for 20,000 Won as opposed to 2,000.

5. Day/month/year

Like the SI system, the middle endian format of writing dates (i.e. month/day/year), is most common in the US and Canada, whereas the little endian form (day/month/year) is used in the rest of the world. It’s usually pretty obvious to tell what date you’re talking about based on context – and if the day happens to fall after the 12th – but it can be confusing to Americans who haven’t seen it before.

6. In Japan

Just some unique measurements to Japan for distance and area. Although kilometers are pretty much the standard, it’s not unheard of to see a reference to a distance in ri (里), about 4 km, especially among older Japanese. Though Japan and Korea each have their own “ri” derived from the original Chinese measurement, I believe all three are now completely different lengths.

Area is where it gets interesting, and more practical. Most Japanese apartments are listed in terms of area jou (畳), or the number of tatami mats that will fit on the floor, about 1.65 square meters. Double that, and you have the standard used for land pricing.

I’m sure there are plenty of other examples of each country’s take on numbers and measurements, even those following the SI system. Please comment. I’d love to know about any in current use.

4 Responses to Little Things Abroad: Dealing With Numbers

  1. Allison Suter on January 30, 2011 at 8:03 am

    Interesting article, but Canada has long been “metrified”.

    People colloquially use imperial (e.g., I’ll speak about my weight in pounds but on my license and my doctors chart it is in kilograms; same exact with my height – I talk about feet and inches but official I’m 149 cms. I’m more comfortable with tablespoons/teaspoons than mls, but I know grams and not lbs/oz).

    However, unlike even the UK our distances are measured in KM (but I think about running distances in miles). We measure gas in liters not gallons. All our temperatures are in C, except on the stove.

    This sums it up quite nicely:

  2. Jessica on January 30, 2011 at 10:53 am

    I was also going to mention Canada, being half Canadian myself. 🙂

    I’d also like to point out why I think the US writes dates in the form MM-DD. If you’re trying to organize dates that take place during one year, this is a much easier system for organizing documents, photos, etc. Of course if you are dealing with more than one year, then I would recommend YYYY-MM-DD/YY-MM-DD. I organize my digital photos this way.

    I’m not sure the US will ever switch to the metric system because we’re stubborn folk! But spending an extended time abroad will inevitably lead to learning the metric system. I know both now.

    By the way, I’m curious if you get negative responses from friends in the States if you accidentally use the metric system.

  3. Turner on January 30, 2011 at 10:56 am

    Not really negative responses; they probably think I’m just as arrogant as I think they are for using the respective systems. I can think of some exceptions to this: runners are usually good about kilometers; engineerings, mathematicians, and physicists (even students), tend to think in SI. I do, anyway.

  4. Jessica on February 2, 2011 at 10:53 pm

    Some friends think I’m trying to be posh if I say kilos. It’s silly really. I haven’t had to use pounds in over three years.

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