Of all the global standards that America studiously ignores, I find its date formats the most galling.

I have learnt to deal with pounds, miles and fahrenheit. I came to this country as an adult with an education that relied entirely on the metric system, which is completely useless in the US. Since then, with dogged determination, I have learnt enough to be able to inform someone about my weight, body temperature and the distance I can run before collapsing, in units that he understands. But alas, I will still not be able to tell him what the boiling point of water is, in fahrenheit, without using a calculator.

Volume measures, I just ignore. I don’t have enough space in my “attic”, which gets smaller with age, to store all this information. I think Americans have trouble with them as well, which is why the good folks at Starbucks simplify their sizes to Tall, Grande etc. Wine bottles are perhaps the only significant product that escaped the tyranny of fl.oz. I never forget that it is 750 ml. Which could also be because I see these bottles often.

Date format by country

Back to dates. The US is the only country that follows the middle-endian format for dates. As you can see in the accompanying chart, most of the world (blue) follows dd-mm-yy (little-endian) and a few countries (yellow) follow yyyy-mm-dd (big-endian). The US is the only country on the planet that stubbornly sticks to the mm-dd-yy format.

People have philosophical issues with the middle-endian approach (mm-dd-yy). It is inelegant, non-intuitive and is not in keeping with the best traditions of a Keep-It-Simple-Stupid culture.

But my problem is not a philosophical one. It is a real one. I deal with two date formats on a daily basis. My work involves dealing with people in India and in the US. Sometimes Indians in India. Sometimes with Indians in the US. Some of them are on short trips. Some of them are on long trips. Some of them are settled here. What is the length of stay after which an Indian in the US switches to mm-dd-yy? When someone writes to you in the last week of April, saying lets meet on 05/06, which date are they talking about?

Luckily emailed dates for scheduling meetings are rarely ambiguous because of the context. But there certainly are situations where middle-endianness causes issues.

At my non-profit, I use a SaaS product called TicketTailor – an excellent product at a very reasonable price, by the way. It’s British company, so the dates are all dd-mm-yy. When you download a CSV with all the sales data, it comes down to you in dd-mm-yy. But my spreadsheet software – Numbers (Mac) or Google Spreadsheets – are set to mm-dd-yy. So I end up with a time series with wrong dates. (The solution to this problem is not to change the date format – that doesn’t work. You first have to change the standard language to UK English. Then open the CSV file.)

Let’s talk about hand written dates. Opening a bank account in India requires a dozen or signatures. And every signature must be dated. Every time you write a check you write a date on it. If you live in the US and you are writing a check on your Indian bank (or rather “cheque”) what date format are you using? By the way, what happens to checks that are post dated? I suppose you can’t bank them.

I’ll tell you what I do. I follow my own format – mmm-dd-yyyy. So today’s date is Jun 29, 2015. No ambiguity.

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