The Uneasy Politics of Birthday Obligations
Top image credit: The Fives (2013), Korean Film Biz Zone

The moment you feel obliged to get someone a gift, all sentiment is lost.

Yet most of us have succumbed to sharing a gift for someone we have little in common with, simply because we were pressured to. It’s almost a wilful act of cognitive dissonance.

This usually happens when trying to maintain the dynamics of a social clique we stopped prioritising a long time ago. These cliques survive because once upon a time, you were in the same university orientation group, classmates in Primary 6, or part-timed at a cafe together.

In the lead-up to someone’s birthday, these inactive Whatsapp group chats are naturally revived by the one person determined to get the gang together again for ‘old times’ sake’.

After a flurry of texts suggesting dates and times, a brave soul volunteers: “Each person $50 ok? Dinner plus present.”

You send a noncommittal reply that indicates minimal interest, but allows you to back out at the last minute if necessary. Something like “See how, let you know soon” or “Should be fine” temporarily alleviates your guilt for wanting to rage quit the group chat.

You end up feeling bad, so you give in to the obligation anyway.

You hate yourself. You secretly hope the practice dies before the next birthday rolls around.

It’s not easy to disagree with people you’re supposed to like.

My friend Brenda is no stranger to these obligations. She’s part of a 5-person clique that insists on planning birthday surprises every year for every member.

All details are painstakingly orchestrated via Whatsapp a month before the actual birthday, down to the minute the cake is presented. Timing is important: all this will be filmed for a video montage to be circulated in the group chat post-celebration.  

Recently, a member of her clique proposed inserting birthday messages into helium balloons. This single detail meant each person forked out a lot more money than really necessary. While most were less than enthusiastic about the arrangement, no one objected.

I tell Brenda that all this sounds batshit insane for just one birthday, and can’t imagine repeating the work several more times during the year. She qualifies that she enjoys the group dynamic so she doesn’t mind sacrificing “sanity and money” while she can still afford it.

Still, she admits, “It’s hard to object, especially when everyone else in the group is cool with it. In a way, any obligation you feel really indicates how much you actually care about a friend. That said, I’ve let them know that I would prefer smaller celebrations.”

Essentially, saying ‘no’ to our friends is easier said than done. Navigating the social politics of birthday obligations teaches us one of life’s hardest lessons: it’s not easy to disagree with people you’re supposed to like.

Birthday obligations, it seems, don’t exist so much to celebrate growing older but to keep friendships alive.

A friend from university, who’s in a common Whatsapp group chat with me, posits that birthday obligations are also an innocuous way to assess friendship currency. Literally.

What you’re willing to fork out for shared gifts is what your friendship is worth. Birthday obligations are a good filter for who you want in your life, because you inevitably realise there are certain people who just mean more.

Unfortunately, not every clique is ready to confront these uncomfortable questions because they shatter the illusion that every member matters equally. They also reveal that friendship goes beyond shared history.

Barring those who genuinely see no big deal and can afford to chip in every time for any gift, monetary contributions can be a friendship dealbreaker. If your clique has 10 members, that brings your annual expenditure for birthdays alone to at least $500.

Realistically speaking, this is mad.

Imagine if everyone was celebrating an ‘important’ milestone birthday (eg, a 21st) within the same year. One simply can’t afford to keep friends like these.

He adds: “In cases where you can’t contribute monetarily, you’d likely be expected to make up in other ways, such as spending effort to get the gift itself. There’s more obligation to take part in the ritual, rather than to give cash per se.”

Birthday obligations, it seems, don’t exist so much to celebrate growing older but to keep friendships alive. Since adult platonic friendships are our lowest priority after romantic partners and family, they mostly fade or die if left alone.

Personally, I hang out with friends one on one. Because I have limited energy, this means I only make time for those I really care about. A colleague agrees: making sure he’s never part of a clique is his life strategy too.

We may have less friends, never understand squad holidays, or enjoy the luxury of having 10 more people share a gift. But at least this guarantees that if we choose to spend $50 or $500 on a friend, it’s because we really, truly want to.

Loading next article...