THE GREAT FLOOR DILEMMA


*arrow points at the bigger windows on the right

I have to be honest with you - I really do not like talking about floors. In fact, I try to avoid those conversations at all costs. The reason is I have completely lost track of how people refer to different levels of buildings based on their home culture, since a) there is no universal convention of reference, b) you never know whether person is aware of the difference between their convention and yours, and finally c) you never know whether the person is adjusting their references when they are aware of the difference between their convention and yours. The problem lies in what we consider the bottom-most level above surface to be: what a European would call “the ground floor” is what an American/Canadian sees as “the first floor”. The naming of basement levels also differs slightly, but that is not my main concern here. The Wikipedia table below provides a clear comparison of these practices: the left-most column represents displacement from ground level, followed by the British/European tradition and the US/Canadian tradition respectively.

The right-most column represents Soviet Union, my home culture. It is almost the same as the US/American with respect to floor numbering, however we would never call the first level above the surface anything other than “first floor” and our term for ground floor (“цокольный этаж”) always refers to the level immediately below the surface. By now I have experienced all the 3 practices first-hand, but it wasn’t until I moved to the Netherlands that I had to actually get my head around these idiosyncrasies. To me, the European approach still looks like a felony against logic. A crime against common sense, if you must. No, but really! Ground floor IS indeed the first floor. There is no zero in there. Zero is the absence of anything. If you live in a 3-storey house, you would say it has 3 floors, wouldn’t you? Because if you stood outside of the house and I asked you to count them, you would go: “One, two, three.” Maybe you would even go as far as admitting for a split second that there are, in fact, 3 floors. Just like we count anything else! Then you might insist that in English we’d rather use “storeys” for counting the number of floors, but what about other European languages that follow the scheme? In this case my friends usually explain the difference between the ground floor and the first floor along the lines of something like this: the former traditionally refers to the entrance/street level hence is not a “real floor”. It's all I manage to get out them before we get a heated (and completely hopeless) argument, that is. To be fair though, this actually might be a good explanation if we compare what words many European languages use to denote that level - from the Dutch begane grond to the Polish parter, they usually have a special name similar to “ground”. For this reason, they are excluded from numbering in lifts or in speech. In Finland things apparently got complicated (seems like a trend in their language), as “the ground floor is called the first floor if it’s inhabited or consists of shops or offices. If it consists of storage rooms, technical rooms, etc, it is called ground floor or basement.”. Yet all the levels above surface are counted. Not confusing at all!

My problem with this whole ground floor/first floor divide has got bigger than ever this spring when I moved house. My current flat is on the floor above the bottom-most level above the surface. That is, my (Russian/Canadian) 2nd floor. That is, your, Dutchies, 1st floor, or eerste verdieping. Since I still cannot help but refer to building levels in the only reasonable - to me, of course - manner (see previous paragraph), I always have to clarify what exactly I’m talking about. Let alone any other time when I am receiving or trying to give directions! See, the struggle is real here. Now imagine travelling abroad. Many countries with strong European influence, for instance, some of the former British or French colonies, also follow the European scheme. Some variation within a single country is also possible: in Vietnam, European scheme is used in the South due to the French past, whereas American scheme is used farther up North. China, Japan, and Korea follow the scheme comparable to the US/Canadian one, although with certain alterations. Numbers ending with 4 are often skipped in lifts as the word for this digit is phonetically similar to “death”, “die”, and “dead” in the corresponding languages. Another cultural superstition is concerned with number 13, but is not so country-specific and could be encountered all over the US, Canada, the Philippines, and China.

So here it is, my take on The Great Floor Dilemma. While I eagerly advocate for the "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" idea, I am not sure whether I will ever be converted to this one...

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