The Friday Fillip

You’ve got to have standards. Not the kind that castles and ships fly or that armies carried into battle (see, e.g., the Battle of the Standard, in reference to which the word was first used in English to mean flag, the OED tells us, because a versifier there wrote: ‘it was there that valour took its stand to conquer or die’), but growing out of that notion of a centre from which commands are issued all the way to a measure of uniform quality. Modern life is so complex that it’s standards or chaos, it seems to me.

Some standards are legislated, of course: drive on the right, a kilogram is a mass of this magnitude, some food sold here must be of this or that quality. Others are the work of industry collaborating under the ISO banner, under which aegis there are more than 18,000 standards involving such things as “Straight-sided splines for cylindrical shafts with internal centering” (ISO 14) and the “Romanization of Chinese” (ISO 7098). It’s these numbers you see proudly plastered on the sides of buildings where companies within have achieved compliance.

The standards that interest me, though, are the informal ones, those we might call conventions. These abound, of course. For example, no one has to insist that English gets written from left to right; we all come together (“convene”) on this. And screws go in or tighten to the right (“righty tighty”) and come out or loosen widdershins (“lefty loosy”); it’s the way we turn here — and most places now, though I have a lovely Japanese sword with a hand-made screw in the hand guard that goes in counter-clockwise. And speaking of clocks, notice how time goes to the right without anyone’s having to have legislated it.

Some standards are more local, such as how many cheek-kisses you use for a greeting and whether you aim for the right or left cheek first. Montreal, I believe, is clearly a two cheek kissing zone. And I learned this fall that Belgium is definitely a three cheek kissing zone. As to which cheek first… my sense is that I go to the right, which presents the left cheek… but I could be wrong.

Then there are the informal standards affecting products that we use all the time. Desk-height, for example, runs at 29 or 30 inches, pretty much invariably. Now this is a function of the human body, of course. But there are bodies and bodies (the species being anything but standardized, thank goodness), so somehow we’ve managed to convene around a table of a certain height. Then there are those standards that result from dominance in the marketplace. Your light bulbs, for example, likely have a base that is the “Edison screw” because Edison’s way of doing things caught fire, so to speak, driving out competitor systems.

The informal standard that I notice and use a lot is the one that says clothing labels should appear at the bottom left of tops — shirts, sweaters, T-shirts, and the like. Who came up with that or how it grew into a convention, I don’t know. But I do know that many times a week I find it useful when I’m barely awake and need a simple yes/no bit of instruction. (There are garments that buck the system; but I haven’t figured out if there’s any regularity to these or whether they’re simply sports.)

But standard/convention making needs to continue, particularly in the world of technology. There’s a crazy variety in the tools we use every day that you can see if you simply pick up your collection of remotes for the TV or the DVD player. I’d vote first for a constant location for the “menu” button on these, and I’d make it big and blue. What’s your take on where we need new standards? Maybe we can start a convention.


  1. One of these conventions is passing on the right while walking in a hallway or sidewalk. We don’t even realize we do it – try passing on the left and see how confused you make the other person. So do walkers pass on the left in England?

  2. I suspect the Brits pass on the left. Having just returned from Japan, I notice this trend (they drive on the left in Japan, same as the UK).

    The danger in the UK and Japan for North Americans is jay-walking. Out of habit, you end up looking the wrong way for traffic in Japan when crossing the street.