Social Minefield: How To Behave On A BirthdayS

Today in Social Minefield, our column on the joys and terrors of human interaction, we provide some tips and tricks for one of the most socially challenging occasions of the year: the birthday.

Obviously, how you should behave on a birthday depends a lot on whether it's yours or not. We'll start with the former. If you ARE the birthday girl/boy...

Be cool.

This may seem general, but if you can follow this one simple rule, everything will be fine. To get a little more specific: despite what Lesley Gore says, if you can avoid crying, yelling, fighting, or generally getting pissed off, your birthday will be way better. Someone got you a shitty present? Laugh it off, and have a drink. Some killjoy refuses to sing? Laugh it off, and have another. Someone brought an annoying guest? Laugh it off, and drink all the good stuff before she gets any. As I mentioned last week, your own birthday party is a great time to get drunk, if you like that kind of thing, and singing, telling stupid stories, and vomiting are not only acceptable — your friends pretty much have to indulge you. But if you start shit with someone, or get mad at a loved one over a birthday slight, you're just going to taint your special day with bad mojo. And even if you remember nothing else from the night, you will remember that.

If you're going to have a birthday dinner, consider your guests.

As Chiara Atik points out, "If you're going out for someone's birthday, you will all pay for the birthday person. Duh." So if you are the birthday person, don't pick a place that's wildly out of any of your guests' price range. Also, consider keeping your dinner guest list short. As Slate's John Swansburg once noted, a big birthday dinner (to my mind, anything above six), is going to leave someone seated in Siberia, unable to talk to you. This is bad for your guests, but it's also bad for you, because you'll sacrifice some of the key advantages that a dinner has over a party — intimacy, and coherent conversation. A small dinner with a few close friends, followed by a blowout at your house or a bar, combines the best of both worlds.

If you want something specific from your loved ones, say so beforehand.

If you care a lot about how your birthday goes down — and I do, so no judgment here — consider mentioning a few specifics to your friends beforehand. Obviously you don't want to make demands, but there's nothing wrong with letting your nearest and dearest know what your favorite cake flavor is, or that you'd really like everyone to sing at midnight. Also, this is a good time to bring up anything that didn't go well the previous year. If you were annoyed that your best friend brought a posse of street performers/Scientologists/libertarians/graduate students last year, give her some kind instructions this time around. This is way better than making a scene at the actual event.

Say thank you.

I'm a fan of the post-bash thank-you sent to the invite list, and to anyone who sent you a present in the mail, a physical thank-you note is nice. This will make you feel all grown up, but in a good way.

Now, what to do if you're a guest at someone else's party ...

You probably don't have to bring a present.

This was anathema when we were little, but now that you're an adult, you really don't have to bring a present to every party. In fact, I'd argue that you generally shouldn't. Bringing a gift when no one else did can just make other people look bad, and create an awkward situation — and trust me, there will be plenty of parties where no one else did. My rule of thumb: if someone is close enough to me that I am already psyched several weeks in advance about what awesome present I'm going to get them, then I buy a gift. I'm usually also close enough to the person that I can present the gift in private, thus avoiding the awkward no-one-else-did scenario.

If it's a house party, you do have to bring booze.

Or what we used to call in college Equally Attractive Non-Alcoholic Beverages. Or cupcakes. People like cupcakes. If it's a party at a bar, at least offer to buy the birthday person a drink.

Be smart about bringing guests.

I like a big party, so I don't usually mind if someone brings randos to my birthday. The only exceptions are violent people, violently offensive people, and underage kids hoping to drink (memo to birthday girls/boys: kindly but firmly ejecting such people does not constitute a violation of Rule #1). That said, if someone's having a smaller gathering, this is not the time for the posse of Scientologists — or, probably, for someone you just started dating. How I Met Your Mother offers a comedic interpretation of why this might not be a rad idea, but basically, it's probably better for all concerned if you don't have to spend the evening helping your friends get to know someone you're just getting to know yourself.

Send a message — but don't be mad if you don't get a reply.

If you can't be with your friend on his/her special day, it's nice to call/text/send a Facebook message. I love getting these on my birthday, and as Noorain points out, "it's the only time I'm in touch with many people throughout the year so it helps not to lose touch. That way I'm not embarrassed when I call them up and ask to crash with them when I'm in town later after not having seen them for 3 years. They asked for it; they wished me happy birthday." So be aware that you could be opening yourself up to couch-surfing requests — and that your message might not be returned right away, because its recipient is busy partying. Facebook messages are especially hard to get caught up on in one's post-birthday haze — really, I don't think anyone should ever be offended that if their Facebook message wasn't returned, but especially not if it said "happy birthday!!!!!!"

Need help with a sticky social situation? Email us! We'll sweep your social minefield.

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Image via Dmitriy Shironosov/Shutterstock.com.