Is Throwing Your Own Birthday Party Rude?

If people really thought throwing your own birthday was rude, they just wouldn’t come.

So here’s the thing. Technically, according to Miss Manners and other old school etiquette experts, throwing or organizing your own birthday celebration is rude. This is one of those rare areas where I fundamentally disagree (even though I see where they are coming from) and think it is one of those sections of etiquette that are changing due to different social norms.

The reason they consider it to be rude is that there is a traditional expectation that when you are invited to a birthday party, you will bring a birthday present and if you are throwing the party for yourself, then you are actually asking people to bring you gifts, which is not polite. In discussions of adult birthday parties, party poopers also like to bring up that it is all about honoring your ownself and being a bit “me me me,” rather than throwing a party in order to simply entertain guests. Miss Manners, herself, is firmly against adult birthday parties.  The general suggestion is that if a person is to have a birthday party, it must be thrown by a spouse, significant other, or other friend.

However, I find, at least among my social circle, that people are incredibly busy these days and while they might bow out of a “just because” party, most people try to prioritize birthday parties. There is also now the expectation that if you wish to celebrate your birthday, you will organize it in someway (spouses and significant others do often do this instead, but it would almost be weird if a friend said “oh let me throw you a birthday party this year”). Also, in my experience and region, birthday gifts for adults between friends are very rare (except maybe a gag gift?), and so there is no expectation that people will bring gifts. With our wide ranging social circles of friends and colleagues, you are also probably the only one who knows who you would want to invite to celebrate with you. So throwing your own thing is absolutely normal and polite.

There are some things that you can do, though, that will make your birthday party impolite:

  • Expecting birthday gifts, especially by making and distributing a registry. (Also don’t mention gifts anywhere in the invitation! Even to say no gifts).
  • With a dinner at a restaurant, you are going to mostly want to invite very close friends so it doesn’t seem like you are inviting people just so they will chip in for your dinner. If you want to invite a bunch of people, have a party at a bar or throw it at your house.
  • If it is your social circle’s custom to all split the birthday person’s dinner, then don’t argue too much when time comes to pay the check. Just say thank you graciously. That being said, always be prepared to pay your own way and don’t pick a restaurant out of the normal price range of restaurants your crowd frequents.
  • Be careful how you phrase invitations, “please join me for dinner at Bistro” sounds more like you are planning on paying for everyone than “I am celebrating my birthday at Bistro and I would love to see you if you can make it.”

I think what causes so much controversy over this issue is that it is something that really has evolved over the last decade or so. No one bats an eye at a Bride and Groom hosting their own wedding to celebrate their own marriage (which decades ago, was Not Done) and I see adult birthday parties as pretty much the same thing. The phrase “just because everyone does something doesn’t make it right” doesn’t actually apply to social customs. Social customs and etiquette are based on what everyone does, and if everyone starts doing something differently than the way it was done 100 years ago, then it becomes correct.

I Went To Sri Lanka And Remembered Etiquette Is Very Subjective

Those are just the rules

Those are just the rules

I can’t remember if it was when the guy on line for airport check-in wouldn’t stop inching up directly behind us, or the 10th time I was cheerfully interrogated about my name and ethnicity, but at some point on my two week trip to Sri Lanka and the Maldives I was reminded that most of the standards of etiquette we write about here are very, very Western. We’ve addressed this before, but it helps to be reminded once and again that there is no objectively correct way of doing things.

I began noticing the little things almost as soon as I got there. How women needed to cover their shoulders in temple, but a bared midriff in a sari is totally acceptable. How eating with your hands and your face low to the plate is preferred. How the concept of an orderly line just didn’t seem to exist. How no one thinks twice about bus drivers pulling over to chat with friends on the side of the road, or stopping their chores to strike up a conversation with a stranger. How bluntly asking “Are you Christian?” (actually, “Are you Christmas?”) with a smile is totally fine.

(Sometimes our clashing ideas of “normal” social interactions clashed. It doesn’t help that the constant friendliness, and really, Sri Lankans were so friendly, made us even more wary of being taken advantage of, as a few times a polite “Hello, how are you? Where are you from? Here, let me help you” ended with requests for cash for guides we never agreed to have. More than once we probably barked at well-meaning strangers just wanting to start up a conversation because we didn’t want it to turn into a solicitation plot 20-minutes later.)

But what struck me was that, despite all the cultural differences and language barriers, the thing that gets across is when someone makes an effort. We could tell when someone meant well, even if they didn’t do things like we would, and I hope we came off the same way. And that’s what this is about. Etiquette practices are a good shorthand for conveying good intentions, but they are meaningless if you don’t actually mean well. But even if you do mean well, just don’t smell Buddha’s flowers.