The other day at work, one of the product marketing managers came over to ask me what the correct measurement term in English was to use for a length that was longer than feet but not into miles. "Yards," I said, "Football fields are measured in yards, and that's a long distance," but then she shook her head and asked, how many yards before you change to miles? Is it excessive, for example, to say 900 yards? There are 1760 yards in a mile, so I didn't think that sounded weird. "But," she asked, "Wouldn't you say 0.whatever miles instead?"
"I don't know," I answered. "You're asking the wrong person." And I put my hands over my ears and said, "Numbers: lalalalala!"
The reason she was asking was because on our product datasheets, we always give measurements in both metric and imperial terms, because our marketing material is used worldwide, which means we have to satisfy both the US/UK customers AND the rest of the world.
Then, I made the mistake of telling her that I can't visualize distances that way; that I can't estimate lengths over about 12 feet. Everyone in earshot stood up and looked at me with astonishment. "What? What do you mean?"
I explained that I can't tell you how long it is from here to there in terms of measurement. If it's over 6-12 feet, I'm at a loss. I would have to pace it off and even then I'd probably be wrong. I have no concept of spatial relationships in terms of measurement unless it's really, really short. Another woman exclaimed, "But don't you know how long a mile is?"
"No," I said. "I have no idea. I don't think like that about distances. I might know intellectually that it is 17 kilometers from our house to the south Lund exit, but I can't apply that virtual distance to any other stretch. I think of distances in terms of TIME usually. It takes 15 minutes, approximately, to travel that same distance."
Both of them boggled at me. The second one said, "But didn't your math teacher ever show you how to reckon in distances, like having you stand somewhere and pointing to a building and saying, that's a mile or whatever?"
"Well, if any of my teachers ever did that, I've long forgotten it, but I don't think so." I can tell you how far apart your hands are, or your fingers (in INCHES or FEET, not in metrical terminology), but my limit is about 12 feet. I haven't ever really NEEDED to be able to estimate distances either. Especially since it seems everyone around me can do it.
When I came home that same day and was relating this story at the dinner table, Anders and the kids thought it was hilarious. My numbers impairment amuses them. And it turns out I was wrong about my assumption that I could estimate 12 feet because that's what I thought the ceilings in our house were, but they're not. They're a little over EIGHT feet.
I asked Anders if he could say, looking out the window, how far it was from our house to the neighbor's front door. Within seconds, he had answered, "About 20 meters." Both kids were boggled that I had no idea, and couldn't even guess, even in feet. And they cracked up completely when I tried to explain how I figure out differences between 1 meter, 2 meters, 1 yard, 3 feet and 6 feet. Because I have it stuck in my head that 3 feet equals a meter, WHICH IT DOES...APPROXIMATELY. But I kept saying that 6 feet was about 2 meters or rather, that 2 meters was about 6 feet, and Anders and Martin kept reacting not only like I had 2 heads, but that both of them were spouting the most ridiculous nonsense. "Mom!" Martin said, "1 meter is 3.2 feet!"
"Close enough," I said and then I gave them the clincher on how my mathematical mind works: "Six feet is about two R2D2's."
*Title from a quote by Marty Rubin