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

Grace Murray 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 strong match 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

A thematic precursor appeared in a Missouri newspaper in 1922 within an advertisement from a chiropractor. The desirability of doing something new was emphasized, but the danger of stasis was not mentioned: 2

Any one can do things the way we’ve always done them. It takes brains to do and understand new things. Folks need not endure years of suffering somewhere in their bodies.
CHIROPRACTIC WILL GET YOU WELL.

In 1975 “The Baltimore Sun” in Maryland published a profile of Grace Murray Hopper. She did not use the word “dangerous”, but she did argue that avoiding change could cause hurt: 3

On the wall over her desk, she hung a clock going counter-clockwise to remind hardheads that because something was done one way in the past is no reason why it can’t be done a better way In the future.

“The hardest thing in the world is to change the minds of people who keep saying, ‘But we’ve always done it this way.’ These are days of fast changes and if we don’t change with them, we can get hurt or lost.”

In 1976 Hopper employed the expression under analysis as mentioned previously in this article:

Hopper said the most dangerous phrase a DP manager can use is “We’ve always done it that way.”

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. 4

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: 5

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: 6

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 communicate this notion 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. Additional thanks to M. R. Heath who pointed out some interesting precursors.)

Update History: On December 1, 2017 the citations dated 1922 and 1975 were added.

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. 1922 April 27, The Windsor Review, (Advertisement by Dr. Grover O. Walters, Chiropractor, Title: Health Talk Number 46: Thank God), Quote Page 7, Column 4, Windsor, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1975 September 26, The Baltimore Sun, Navy computer grandmother keeps moving (KNI), Quote Page B8, Column 3 and 4, Baltimore, Maryland. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. 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)