Time confused!

BST, EST, EDT, GMT, UTC, Zulu! They all represent time zones and add to the confusion when scheduling or attending conferences, training sessions, meetings, and more, whether travelling or online. GMT, or Greenwich Mean Time, is also known as UTC (Universal Coordinated Time or Coordinated Universal Time) or Zulu Time. A quick search will bring up explanations.

GMT is the time against which times around the world are compared. For example, in Toronto and New York, Eastern Standard Time (EST) is GMT −5 or five hours behind GMT. During the spring and summer, many areas (but not all) go into daylight savings time, and clocks are set forward one hour. Toronto becomes Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) or GMT −4. In the UK, the time change takes place a couple of weeks later than Canada, and it is known as BST or British Summer Time (not ’standard’ time as represented by the ’S’ in EST and MST). So, for a couple of weeks, anyone attending weekly online events in the UK would need to be aware of when local time changed from GMT with no offset, their regular time, to BST. In the fall, clocks are turned back. Add to this, you have EDT in Australia, the Caribbean, North America, and the Pacific, and other abbreviations are also repeated. Also, in Canada, one province does not change. You can imagine the confusion, and there is no doubt that people are late or early for meetings, work, and other activities.

A recent example is our #PhDChat group on Twitter which meets Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. UK time. For two weeks, it becomes out of synch with North America and other continents. But how does the organiser advertise the time for clarity? Keeping the local time as 7:30 p.m., it becomes GMT +1. It could be reflected as London or UK time and GMT +1 for clarity. However, responses to the discussion confirmed it is not so clear and perhaps there are other ways. You can call it BST, but many around the world will not know that particular term. Should the focus be on the local time or GMT when attracting a worldwide audience?

There is no getting away from it—there will always be some level of confusion. If time is specified as GMT, with an offset as appropriate, it is up to the user of the information to make the necessary adjustment. Local time and the time in GMT may make it clearer, or not. And of course, more familiar is some parts of the world is the 24-hour clock rather than a.m. and pm. What should you do?

  • Avoid using the time zone in an abbreviated form alone.
  • Consult www.timeanddate.com to determine time differences.
  • If you are responsible for planning a meeting, use the Meeting Planner at www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/meeting.html. It allows you to create a link that you can send to participants showing the times in other places in relation to the meeting location. The site recommends using UK time instead of GMT, if someone is located there.

While I am familiar with the basics, I will admit I can still get turned around talking about time zone changes, and I’ve learned something new about the topic. How about you? Is it clear? How do you prefer to see times illustrated? What interesting challenges have you encountered?

A.E. (Tony) Ratcliffe
PhD Research Student, BDRA

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