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Carolyn Hax: When is a birthday just a matter of selfishness?


Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

Why, oh why, must my adult friends persist in putting together lunches and potlucks and nights out and dinners together to honor their birthdays? I’m just really tired of it. First, after 21, all you get are years divisible by five. Second, if you want to have a party, host a party. This means you pay!

Am I overreacting? How can I decline these invitations for close acquaintances without being rude?


If it weren’t the adult friend’s birthday, would you want to go to a potluck or lunch with this friend?

Seems to me anything that’s okay in the regular course of a friendship is okay in marking a birthday. And therefore kvetching about it suggests there’s something else going on.

Re: Birthdays:

I’m really surprised by your response. It is considered poor etiquette to expect people to chip in to celebrate one’s birthday. If one wants to celebrate, they should host it themselves. Or, better yet, realize they are adults and stop expecting other people to care that they were born on a certain day.

I think the problem is that many people expect friends to make a big fuss over them and then are let down when it doesn’t happen. My friends who really care about their own birthdays don’t make the same fuss over anyone else’s. It reeks of self-centeredness.


You’re right, if you’re throwing your own party, you pay. But Adult’s exasperation moved me to consider another angle. If a group of people socializes in a certain way, then celebrating a birthday in that same way doesn’t strike me as a skivvies-bunching concept.

Before judging an invitation as selfish, look at the context: Say you and your friends routinely meet for lunch and split the check. If the birthday person thinks one of those lunches would be a great way to mark her birthday, is she supposed to not invite you and wait till you think of it — or does she call and set up a lunch like any other of your lunches? Maybe she doesn’t even expect you all to cover her tab; maybe she just wants to see you.

The “What-is-with-people?” approach cuts both ways.

And, when the context says someone’s being greedy, the remedy is simple: Decline the invitation. “I’m sorry, I have other plans that night.” Ask yourself, too, why you keep greedy friends.


I think what’s going on is that my large circle of acquaintances/friends thinks we’re closer than I think we are. I don’t feel like I get a lot from these friendships, and my priorities are more along the lines of spending time with my family.

Also — here’s where I need to get my own house in order — I do a fair amount of hosting and it’s not returned. So, when I receive a birthday party invite that explicitly/implicitly says to bring booze/food, I feel disappointed. I worry about declining invites and hurting feelings.

Adult again

You sound ready to tighten your circle of friends a bit. Not by doing anything drastic, but instead by being present for the friends you care most about, and declining — guilt-free — the invitations of those who feel more like acquaintances than friends (even “close acquaintances,” whatever those may be).

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Subscribe at



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