The Calendar Trap

Rats, it happened again… all these years and I still stumble into that funky little rabbit hole known as the calendar. Chilean calendars not only start on a different day, they are used differently too. You’d think I’d have that down by now!

Here’s the set-up. I receive an e-mail on Monday the 22 requesting something for next Wednesday. No problem, I zip back, silently applauding the sender for allotting me so much time. But oops… watch that slippery step there sister, a cultural-linguistic trap lies in wait…

MomentoMomento (in other words: Stop Right Here):
Let me ask you this: supposing that we’re dealing with a 31-day month, what is the date of the Wednesday in question?
Seriously…please leave a comment with your language and country of reference (as in where you learned to use a calendar) and tell me what Wednesday you think we’re talking about.

OK, Adelantenow you can read on…

Here’s my guess. If you grew up speaking English in the States, you’ll say Wednesday the 31st; if you grew up speaking Spanish in Latin America, you’ll say the 24th. And I’m really curious about other language-country combinations. Here’s the deal.

In Latin America (where they use European-style calendars that begin on Monday, which is logical if you consider that biblically Sunday was the 7th day of the week)… when someone says “el próximo miércoles” (next Wednesday) they look at the calendar to see when the very next Wednesday rolls around, which in this case is 2 days later on the 24th. But in the US, that “próximo” (next) jets us off to next week to start our Wednesday-hunting, and we discover that it is the 31st… And this is so because to us any day of this particular week is preceded by “this,” as in THIS Wednesday (the 24th).

The same thing happens when we look back in time. If we’re in July 2009 and I hear a reference to “el mayo pasado” (last May), I’m thinking 2008. Not so my Chilean colleagues. Last May is still fresh in their minds because, well, duh, it was only a couple months ago—while I’m wracking my brain to remember what was going on 14 months back.

So, bottom line: “OJO” which is, of course, Chilean for “Careful” with dates… Gringos: when you hear a próximo or pasado, double check on just exactly which next or last your Chilean friend is referring to.

And Chileans, please be aware of this potential glitch when dealing with English speakers or your otherwise punctual gringo friends are likely to show up a week, a month or a year late!

41 responses to “The Calendar Trap

  1. Italy: if you are on monday (“lunedì”) and talk about next wednesday (“mercoledì prossimo”, or simply “mercoledì”), you are talking about a gap of 2 days; for a shift of 9 days, you have to specify “wednesday of the next week” (“mercoledì della prossima settimana”).

  2. yes! i just had this happen to me. i scheduled a presentation with my collegues and then had to postpone it. i sent them all an email on monday saying that the meeting would be “next tuesday”. i got multiple responses asking if the meeting would be “tomorrow” as in THIS tuesday to me, or if it would be the following. in my head i did a quick…where is the confusion on NEXT tuesday? bc to my gringa brain it was logical. not so, not so.

    on another note, i do prefer the monday starting the week calendar.

  3. Thanks Samuel- so now we know that Italy & Italian work like Spanish… and I suspect that most of us, regardless of language, would think that a general reference to plain old “Wednesday” would get us to the same point 2 days away… although those kinds of assumptions tend to get me into trouble… anyone know of a contradiction there?

  4. Yes. This. I have developed an elaborate set of words and sentences to use to describe whatever the day in question is. And when you ask them (in Chile) if it seems maybe a little bit ambiguous, they kind of shrug and say, yeah, maybe. I guess so. As if a whole week didn’t matter!

    I end up with a lot of “el que viene” vs. “el otro” talk.

  5. Emilyta- Are you from the US or England? (as in, is this a national thing or an English thing?–we’re doing research here!)
    The interesting thing is that your collegues picked up on it–seems they’ve worked with gringos before! I bet a lot of us would end up with a roomful of Chileans wondering where the heck the gringa was, and a gringa who would’ve shown up a week later upset that nobody else bothered!
    The week starting on Monday thing- it certainly makes sense… took a while to keep it in mind when glancing quickly at the calendar… but no real problems there

  6. Eileen- it does seem to get a bit wordy, doesn’t it? And then when I try to be really explicit, my Chileans nearest and dearest, one & all, tell me I am “enredada” (literally tangled up, but figuratively just making things more difficult than they have to be!)

  7. Agh! This happens to me all the time. I would have thought they were talking about July 1st, a gap of 9 days. Now I make sure to either point to a calender or say the date just to make sure.

    This is also a problem in my English classes when I assign homework. The students tend to freak out because they think I’m assigning them an essay for two days from now when really I’m giving them ten days.

  8. Oops…I missed the 31 day month part. I assumed we were talking about June/July here. But you understand.

  9. margaret, im from the US. and although one other gringa has worked in this company (ever) i think that in this particular situation they were confused because it was monday, the meeting was planned for wednesday (of the current week) and i emailed to say it was POSTPONED until next tuesday. so logically, if the meeting is postponed, it should be AFTER the original meeting date. but since there was a “next tuesday” before what i was calling “next tuesday” i got the confused responses. ¿cachai?

  10. Emilyta-
    yes… ¡te cacho perfectamente! ¡te enredaste! (or rather you got them all screwed up!)

  11. Abby- ok, me pillaste–you figured out I was talking about something that really happened the other day, in a 30-day month, but I didn’t want to get into that example, so I made up a hypothetical 31-day month!

  12. I ran this by a German friend tonight and she thinks gringo-style (next week on Wednesday). An Argentine friend living in Switzerland says Argentina is like Chile (this week on Wednesday), but the Swiss think “next week” like Germans & the girngos.

  13. When has anyone in Chile ever cared about dates or time keeping?

    Ask yourselves this.

    Is next Christmas this December 25th or December 25th 2010?

  14. P.S. Emilyta looks like Audrey Hepburn!

  15. Aw, c’mon Matt- now you’re being cynical (which is definitely NOT cínico- see
    That’s what this is all about… there IS a logic there… we just have to figure out what it is and play by their rules!
    So- in England- this Wednesday or next Wednesday?

  16. England would be this Wednesday (coming) and next Wednesday (next week). So the same as the US.

    I always confirm in Spanish as I got caught out a few times in the past…este miercoles que viene o el miercoles de la proxima semana???

  17. (Oh, I’m the other Matt btw.

    I can’t wait to see the looks of confusion on the faces of the Santa Cruzians when they realise there are two of us…)

  18. I’m Australian, and we have both systems of reference. It can be very confusing. I tend to think along the American lines (31st), but my father thinks along “logical” lines (24th). If I want to be absolutely clear, I say “this wednesday” for the 24th, and “wednesday week” for the 31st. I can’t believe I didn’t notice it when I lived in Chile.

  19. Hi Matt the Blogger-
    yes, I realized which Matt you were… and yes, it will be curious to have 2 Brit Matts in Santa Cruz! But I suspect you’re not permanently attached to big cameras, so they’ll get it figured out quickly enough!
    So, this vs next Wednesday seems to be a language thing…
    And you’re right, the only way to go is to be very explicit and double check, but sometimes I forget and that’s when I get into trouble!

  20. Hi Buckbear- how confusing to use both systems in Australia! But I suppose that just makes people extra cautious from the very beginning… so maybe that’s why you didn’t notice it in Chile!
    I’ve never heard the expression “Wednesday week” before… that would really throw me!

  21. We use ‘Wednesday week’ in England as well…

  22. What does “Wednesday week” mean? I never heard that expression before!

  23. Maybe it’s a Brummie thing…or a public school thing…I must have picked it up from somewhere…

  24. Ok- not only have I not heard “Wednesday week” before, but now I have to ask what a “Brummie thing” is!

  25. “Brummie” is someone from Birmingham. The UK one not the Alabama one. A bit like calling someone an “Okie”

    Famous Brummies. Jasper Carrot and Ozzy Osbourne.

  26. Hey Matt- Thanks for clearing that up…
    And er, um… I know who Ozzy Osborne is of course, but Jasper Carrot? Had to look him up… as it turns out he IS “world famous in Birmingham”!!

  27. He is one of the richest people in the UK. He has a daughter called Henrietta.
    I lived in Birmingham for a year it was terrible.

  28. Hey, amiga, same trap here in Argentina…and after six years I still get befuddled by the use of the 24 hour clock…Someone says, “Meet me for coffee at 17.00” and I have to do the math: Let’s see, 24-17, no that’s not it; drop the first number and then subract two (i.e., subtract 12). “Okay see you at 5!” I finally got a clock that shows the 24 hours to keep on view because I have actually shown up for an appointment at 3 that was really at 13.00. Of course people show up two hours late any way for lots of things here, so maybe they are confused too?

  29. ‘A study matching accents with perceived intelligence found that speaking “Brummie” gave an even worse impression than having nothing to say.’

    Birmingham was pretty shite a while back but all the gentrificoyshun has smartened it up a bit…and the Selfridges is pretty awesome.

  30. Going a bit off-topic, Mega did a story on American immigrants for its morning news section called “Immigrants”. You can watch it on http:/// and click on Matinal and then on “Inmigrantes”.

  31. Hi Gayle! Ah! Military time! I still get mixed up on that one too- the same as you- for some reason my brain wants to subtract 10 hours instead of 12, so if you tell me to meet you at 13.00–we’ll both show up right on time at 3:00! And then when it’s 22.00 I have to do the math the other way ’round… “let’s see, 22 means there’s just 2 hours left til 24, which is midnight, so 2 hours less, oh yeah, 10pm!)

  32. Matt- Thanks for that link on accents- vrey interesting!
    And Selfridges is incredible! I had no idea!

  33. Cristóbal-
    Thanks for the link- haven’t had a chance to see it yet, but sounds very interesting!

  34. This is my problem in German and Spanish! ARGH… I was going to say the first Wednesday or the last Wednesday of the month. Although, it was the last that occurred to me first (does that make sense?)

    It looks like a hot topic cause you have dozens of comments.

  35. Margaret…Thanks so much for this very interesting and IMPORTANT post. It explains quite a few mix ups that I chalked up to laziness on my Chilean neighbors part, and they obviously thought the same of me. When you add that to military time, it’s a wild time.

    My husband cannot understand how I confuse 18:00 hrs with 8:00 pm, since I was in the military…frankly I couldn’t explain it either and suffered dearly in basic training. You have solved the mystery for me after all these years. My brain does the minus 10 thing too.

  36. Hi Sarah-
    I was just in Germany and they assure me that there, like in English, they use this Wednesday for this week and next Wednesday to refer to Wednesday of next week.
    First or last of the month sounds pretty clear to me… and so far I can’t imagine a way of managing to find a point of confusion in THAT!

  37. Vicki- Yes, it’s those SIMPLE things that louse us up the most! and I still manage to screw up military time… the other day I found I was over compensating and instead of saying 18:00 – 2 = 6PM, I ADDED 2 to make 20:00 and got 10 PM (go figure! math is definitely not my strong suit!)

  38. I asked my Chileno this and he said that “el próximo miércoles” to him would mean the next Wed the next week. He is very literal though. Last May to both of us would be May 2009 because it was the last May that occured. Any other May we referred to would be May with the year attached. I think I usually use “this past May” instead of “this last May” though. Interesting in general though.

  39. Interesting- how long has your Chileno lived in the States? And I agree… most in the states would probably say “this past May” for May 2009 and be more specific about “last year in May” or “May of last year” to refer to May 2008.

  40. Pingback: Cachando Chile: a Year in Review « Cachando Chile: Reflections on Chilean Culture

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