Most Dangerous Phrase: We’ve Always Done It That Way

Grace Hopper? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

grace07Dear Quote Investigator: Grace Murray Hopper was a pioneering computer scientist whose work was central to the development of COBOL, one of the foundational high-level programming languages. She worked in a very fast moving technological domain where simply attempting to repeat previously successful strategies was sometimes disastrous. I am trying to determine if she crafted the following astute remark:

The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in the periodical “Computerworld” in 1976. An article about new laws in the U.S. concerning data processing (DP) and privacy included an interview with Grace Murray Hopper who employed an instance of the saying. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

On the future of data processing, Hopper said the most dangerous phrase a DP manager can use is “We’ve always done it that way.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1981 the computer periodical “InfoWorld” quoted Hopper using the expression “we’ve always done it this way” critically. Hopper clearly indicated that the phrase embodied a wrong-headed attitude though she did not label it dangerous. 2

She contends, “Kids know what’s happening. They’re up on the technology. Lots of bright youngsters aren’t hampered by ‘we’ve always done it this way,’ ‘it won’t work’ or ‘I’ve never heard of it'”

In 1987 the newsletter of a nonprofit library cooperative published a compilation titled “The Wit and Wisdom of Grace Hopper”. Once again the expression “we’ve always done it this way” was used critically. In addition, Hopper mentioned a distinctive timepiece: 3

On change: “Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise.”

In 1995 a book presenting an historical perspective on the use of information technology in libraries used a quotation from Hopper as a chapter epigraph. This instance used the word “damaging” instead of “dangerous”. The author included a precisely specified citation with a 1987 date: 4

The most damaging phrase in the language is “We’ve always done it this way!”
— Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper in an interview in Information Week, March 9, 1987, p. 52

In conclusion, Grace Hopper did employ this expression more than once though the exact phrasing varied. QI suggests referring to the 1976 citation.

Image Notes: Red danger sign cropped from high voltage warning from OpenClips at Pixabay. Circle-repeat image from Nemo at Pixabay. Grace Murray Hopper at the UNIVAC keyboard. File is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license via Wikimedia Commons. Author: Unknown (Smithsonian Institution). Source: Flickr: Grace Hopper and UNIVAC.

(Great thanks to Peter Liepmann whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1976 January 26, Computerworld, Volume 10, Number 4, Privacy Laws May Usher In ‘Defensive DP’: Hopper by Esther Surden (Computerworld Staff), Quote Page 9, Column 3, Computerworld, Inc., Newton, Massachusetts, Now published by IDG Enterprise. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1981 October 5, InfoWorld, Volume 3, Number 20, Captain Grace M. Hopper: the Mother of COBOL by Vicki Porter Adams, Quote Page 33, Column 2, Published by InfoWorld Media Group, Inc. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. Website: Yale University Computer Science, Article information: Electronic copy of an article originally published in The OCLC Newsletter (OCLC: Online Computer Library Center), Date on website: 1987 March/April, Issue number on website: 167, Editor and article author: Philip Schieber, Article title: The Wit and Wisdom of Grace Hopper, Website description: Computer Science department of Yale University. (Accessed cs.yale.edu on November 26, 2014) link
  4. 1995, Library Information Technology and Networks by Audrey N. Grosch, Quote Page 183, Published by Marcel Dekker, New York. (QI has not yet verified the 1987 citation in InformationWeek)(Google Books Preview)