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Birthday Confusion–A U.S.-vs.-the-World Problem

We have just welcomed to our home an international exchange student from the Middle East. When I read the information she included on her program application, I added her birthday to our calendar: June 5.

But here's the problem: Her birthday is May 6.

How could I have gotten that wrong? Her birthday was listed on the application as 6/5/9_. In the U.S., that means June 5. However, in the rest of the world it means May 6. 

Yet today I traveled to Canada and back. On both the Canadian and the U.S. customs forms, I was asked to provide my birthday in this format: day-month-year. Having the month-day-year habit, I had to cross out what I originally wrote and start over.

What is the solution to my confusion? A global standard that people in the U.S. agree to? Spelling out the months at all times?

I guess I will just have to confirm the date before I schedule any birthday parties.

What do you recommend?

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

14 comments on “Birthday Confusion–A U.S.-vs.-the-World Problem”

  • Dear Lynn,

    I joint your blog yesterday. I come from Indonesia that may have different English style with yours.

    Date format always confusion us if the people write 6/8/09. For me, I prefer to use 6 Aug 09.


  • You aren’t alone. I’m from the U.S. and have been in Italy for nearly a year, and that still gets me screwed up (along with the metric system). I have gotten in the habit of always writing the month to make sure there is no confusion. While a global standard with the U.S. on board would be great, it would take a generation or two to stick. Good post — this is one of the little things Americans need to keep in mind when communicating with the rest of the world.


  • If you need to use numbers, one option is to use year, month, day order (i.e., 2010-1-23). That is the least likely to cause confusion in any culture that uses the Gregorian calendar because it follows order of units (like most of the world) while being unusual enough not to be quickly misread.

  • Interestingly, the U.S. military uses day/month/year like the rest of the world. (They also measure in “klicks” – kilometers.) That’s what comes from having to coordinate multinational operations. Perhaps as the European Union and Asian markets continue to grow, U.S. businesses will also take the military’s common-sense approach and it will filter down to the rest of us.

    And, more cynically speaking, as an ever larger part of our unemployed population joins the military, their exposure to the global date and measurement system may help to reinforce its use.

    In any case, ever since my 1980s stint in the National Guard, I’ve adopted the “14 Jan. 2010” format for dates in my own correspondence and legal papers, and no one has objected. It saves me a comma, too. 🙂

  • It sounds as though writing out the month is the winning approach.

    Scott, I am concerned that your suggested way might still be confusing if the day were from 1 to 12. For example, could 2010-1-5 be interpreted two ways?

    Thank you all for the comments.


  • Yes we all are currently suffering with it. I am student at FC College Lahore, Pakistan. Although this is in Pakistan but since the administration is all from US that’s why at school we use like Jan 15, 2010 to make it more clear for administration and Pakistanis.

    @Lynn: I’m great admirer of your blog and liked your articles about greetings and the one about No acceptance for Dear Sir/Madam.

  • I require my business communication students to spell out the month when they date their correspondence, especially if the day is between 1 and 12. It certainly avoids confusion.

    However, it would be excellent if all of the countries using the Gregorian calendar registered dates using the year-month-day order suggested by Scott (going from the largest to the smallest time unit). This is the most logical system for saving documents chronologically when using a computer, isn´t it? Incidentally, Basque-language writers always use the year-month-day convention.

  • Hi, Waqas. Thank you for telling us about the situation in Pakistan. I am glad you like my pieces about greetings.

    Dala, it is so interesting that you and Scott suggest year-month-day dates. I don’t believe I have ever seen that rendering in any business communication. Do you know whether anyone uses it now?

    I am glad you both stopped by.

  • The yyyy-mm-dd notation is in fact an international standard. Starting with the year and using the hyphen separator are signs that the date is written to the ISO 8601 standard; so, there is no ambiguity.

    Standards come into acceptance only when many individuals decide to adopt them; so, let us be the ones that keep this ball rolling.

  • Hi Lynn,

    As a writer and editor from the U.S., now living in Australia, I have encountered this problem. The style here is day/month/year. I don’t think the issue will be solved unless there is one system that is accepted and practiced by all.

    In Australia, we use the Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers as our guide.

  • I lived in England for four years as a child and then Denmark, where the rules continued to be flexible, right afterward. So when I came back to the U.S this particular conceit became a source of confusion for me! As others have mentioned, simply spelling out the month is incredibly useful. Speaking of international travel; I find that inclusive travel packages are one of the best ways to see the world on a budget- they may be of use to you if you’d like to visit your exchange student overseas, Lynn. is a good place to start.

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