Dear Miss Manners:
I am a bit put off yet confused about how to address the lack of fairness in birthday lunches at a company I've worked at for a year.
I'd been there three months when my birthday loomed, and teammates suggested a lunch to celebrate my and another new co-worker's birthdays. It was a $7 buffet and we birthday girls bought our own lunches, despite it being someone else's invitation. A few weeks later, it was another, more-tenured teammate's birthday. It was proposed that we go to an expensive (on my salary) restaurant for dinner; I stayed for a drink and departed, and got the impression that my co-workers split the cost of his drinks and meal.
Two weeks later, there was another birthday lunch that cost quite a bit more than my birthday buffet, and when the bill came, the supervisor announced that we were paying for the birthday girl (again, more tenured but not a supervisor).
Obviously, this isn't fair, nor do I have money to regularly contribute to everyone's birthday lunches, yet the trend selectively continues. My birthday is in 21/2 months. If faced with paying for my own birthday lunch again, do I laughingly point out that I paid for others'? Or do I keep quiet and fork over my money?
Or do you ask your mother to talk to the teacher about making sure everyone gets a fair birthday celebration, not forgetting to make a provision for those whose birthdays happen to fall during vacation time?
Miss Manners apologizes for seeming harsh, but such problems as you describe exist exactly because the office birthday party is a ridiculous concept.
There may be some who have tender feelings toward the honoree (and nothing stops them from having their private parties). But for the rest -- you among them, from your account of others' celebrations -- it has become just another impersonal form of pseudo-socializing on the job, and an expensive one at that.
In the absence of emotional ties, it should not surprise you that high-ranking people get better treatment than lower-ranking ones.
But your lunch hour is supposed to be your own, and you should be able to opt out of the whole silly business. Make a lunch date on your birthday with some non-office friend who would enjoy being with you, and excuse yourself from others' luncheons with previous engagements, errands to do or working at your desk. If this brings criticism, it will be time for you to enlist others in an office policy freeing lunchtime.
Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.
(c) 2005, Judith Martin