The Birthday Greeting Hierarchy

Last night I went to a birthday dinner for some old friends. During the meal, I asked one of celebrants how another one of her friends—her maid of honor, in fact—was doing. Were they still close? I had hardly heard the MOH’s name recently.

“We’re still friends. But let’s put it this way,” my friend said. “She wished me a happy birthday on my Facebook wall…And that was it.”

That simple sentence told me everything I needed to know. And so began a heated discussion about appropriate birthday greetings between friends.

There are unwritten rules about this. But evidently the MOH wasn’t in the know, so maybe said rules deserve to be written after all.

Facebook wall posts are at the bottom of the totem pole. They’re for the people you like, but who you wouldn’t otherwise wish a happy birthday at all—be it because you aren’t in touch or your relationship hasn’t reached a texting, emailing or calling stage. I might slap a “Happy Bday!” on the wall of a coworker’s husband or an old acquaintance from college. I’d go that route with an improv classmate or a camp friend from the old days.

Emails and texts are for casual friends. They’re not your BFFs, or even close friends, but you have a current and independent relationship with them. I’d opt to email or text most of the friends I’ve made since this search began. (With a few exceptions, we generally haven’t reached the phone call place yet.) I’ve even got some women in my life who I’d consider a semi-close friend, but our chosen method of communication has always been text, so I’d go that route for the birthday greeting. Email is also acceptable for some family members—I often use it for aunts, uncles, and cousins.

Close friends and BFFs deserve a phone call. Making the effort tells your friend she’s worth a few moments of your day. Oftentimes you’ll be sent to voicemail anyway—it’s a weekday and who has time to field birthday wishes all the time? Leave a message, show you care, and be on your way. It’s not hard. That’s the approach I take. It doesn’t matter if I talk to that friend once a week or twice a year. If our history warrants it—we were uberclose once, but time and distance has caused us to drift—your phone will be ringing. It’s the perfect time to catch up and say “I know we haven’t spoken, but I’ll always think of you on this day.” So your, ahem, maid of honor, no matter if you’ve started to grow apart, must pick up the phone. No exceptions.

If you’re someone’s BFF, you can work your way down the totem pole. That is to say, if I call my best friend and she doesn’t pick up, I can shoot her an email to say “Hope you got my message! Thinking of you.” Then you can post on her Facebook wall, so she feels the extra love. But you cannot go wall post only.

A final thought:  I would rather a close friend simply forget my birthday than opt to go the Facebook route. I’ve forgotten friends’ birthdays before. I never feel good about it. But there have been instances where I was so harried that I never registered what day it was. And often on weekends I don’t look at a calendar at all. When my close friends simply forget, I don’t get mad or hurt. I know how life can get. It’s not personal. But if someone who holds bestie status remembers my birthday and consciously decides to go the facebook route… Well, then I’d probably feel the sting.

What about you? Do you buy into this birthday etiquette? What about when a friend forgets your big day altogether?

39 Comments

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39 responses to “The Birthday Greeting Hierarchy

  1. JenD

    What a timely post – today is my birthday! I woke up to a handful of Facebook wall b-day wishes. Personally, I don’t mind what method the well-wishing takes no matter who it’s from. I’m generally just glad anyone remembers at all!

  2. I agree w/ the hierarchy, for the most part. For some of my family members, I still prefer a text message or email over a phone call because I am not a phone person… I like a phone call from a best friend and from my parents but besides that, I do not need a phone call from most people…

    What I don’t really love or don’t understand is when a friend calls, emails, or texts, and then also writes on my facebook wall… Maybe he/she is doing that to make me feel extra special, but I sometimes feel that message isn’t about me, it’s about everyone else seeing that the friend wished me happy birthday, if that makes any sense… But I get sort of annoyed by facebook and feel like so many wall posts are sort of directed to the greater population and not to the friend whose wall you are writing on… But I am probably in the minority on that…

    • That’s so interesting Lisa. I think some people like for their BFFs to go on Facebook too, just so they can look at a wall filled with notes. It becomes, from what I can tell, about the number of notes versus the content. But I definitely see what you mean, I think you may be right…

      • Anonymous

        I am trying to send my Happy Birthday wishes on Facebook to a person’s message section, where only they can read it. I have also felt that many times the wall posting is just some kind of popularity contest.

        I will say that it was nice to have a multitude of wishes on my birthday on facebook, and it did make me feel good. But if facebook didn’t publish my birth date, then many of my friends (several I haven’t seen in years) wouldn’t even know that my birthday always came once a year.

        I always try to call and text my friends and family. I think it is much more personal and hopefully they know I did remember without a computer data memory to tell me it was their special day.

  3. Ana

    I’d have to disagree with you on this one Rachel. Certainly I would feel extra-special warm & fuzzy with a phone call, but these days, phone calls, even to close friends, are a rarity in my life. So my hierarchy is off a bit—my family calls ANd sends a card/present. Really good friends—I may be a little hurt if they don’t call or send a card, but not really. I always send a card for my good friends’ birthdays, followed by a facebook post on the actual day so they know I am thinking of them. I’m not insulted by someone double happy birthday-ing me with a call & a FB post. I think people do that because while they may PLAN to call in the evening, for example, they see all the other people wishing you a happy birthday and just have to do it, too….and they are covering their bases in case something prevents the phone call from occurring.
    And I always somehow forget the birthday of the friend for whom I was MOH. In fact, I seem to remember only my older friends (high school & before) birthdays. I think birthdays were generally much more important back then? Or my brain was younger & more prone to store memories?

    • Ana, you know what’s interesting? I forgot to even mention actual birthday CARDS here. Ridiculous! Shows how our communication has evolved, huh? I actually think cards are the ultimate. So thoughtful and touching.

      As for remembering birthdays, I have the same thing. I still remember that July 26 is the bday of my fifth grade best friend, but can never remember the exact date of one of my current besties. (Thank God for Facebook…)

  4. Marsi

    I think you are spot on Rachel and in fact my MOH just left me a facebook post on my last birthday. I know we are all busy these days but I completely agree with your analysis. In the time it took her to write the facebook post couldn’t she have picked up the phone and left me a message? I think she made a statement to me that she didn’t want to take the time to talk to me in the case that I might actually pick up. I would have preferred she just have forgotten my bday. Am I being too senstitive or looking too far into this?

  5. Karen A.

    I was just about to post, What about cards? but I see it has already come up. I think they are the most fun, you can prepare them in advance, take some time writing a message and offer a tangible talisman of your thoughts.

  6. I’m glad Ana brought up the birthday card option because for me that is at the top of my list. My close friends and family all get cards. I love finding the perfect card or even making the perfect card. Maybe even more imporant is the written message I write inside; it’s never just my name and I take the opportunity to be serious and heartfelt.
    Now, I may forget to call or with the time differents it may not work out; however, I always am sure to send a card. Whether or not the card gets there on time is a challenge because I’ve decided the mail gods are completely against me. But then I back it up with a text to make sure to wish them a happy birthday.
    Facebook is nice, but it also takes a lot out of communication intimacy.

  7. This is interesting. I never knew that there was such a thing. I’ve been guilty of the facebook well wish and leaving it at that.

    I guess I should change my ways…

  8. Janna

    Alright, I might be tagged the curmudgeon here, but really, aside from my sisters, husband and parents, I really don’t expect people to send me birthday wishes. I do get them, but it’s a nice thing, not an expected-I’m-going-to-be-hurt thing. I think as I got older (and I don’t consider myself old) I started feeling really awkward expecting friends to even necessarily remember my birthday on it’s exact date, much less have a dinner or a night out for it or go shopping for cards or whatnot. I do send cards myself, but I don’t send them so that I get them or anything, it’s just something I like to do.

    Sort of akin to this line of thought is John Swansburg’ article from Slate, which I think is funny and, let’s be honest, rings a bit true: http://www.slate.com/id/2202646/

    • Brilliant article. So true sometimes, too. It’s especially awkward when you are invited to a party for someone you don’t know very well (who probably also has very rich friends) and end up paying a mint for your trouble.

  9. I’m going to give a definitive “it depends…” to this. Personally, I don’t have a problem with wall posts or texts/emails for my birthday because, even if FB reminds someone that it’s my birthday, they still thought to wish me a happy birthday. In general, as I’ve gotten older I guess I don’t care too much if people remember it or acknowledge it or not. I get cards and phone calls from my family and closest friends, and that’s more than enough for me.

    However, I have a birthday-related bad friend story. My boyfriend had a pretty rough health year – having 2 surgeries and associated hospital stays and long recoveries. He was better in time for his 30th birthday, so I threw a huge surprise party for him, but it was more to celebrate everything he’d overcome than just his birthday. Many of his family and friends flew in from all over the country just to celebrate with him. One of his friends here in Chicago waffled about whether or not she was going to come, blew off the party to eat sushi with another friend (which I knew from her FB status that night), and my boyfriend only received a generic “Happy Birthday” from her on his wall and hasn’t really heard from her since (this was over the summer). In that case, I’d say a wall post is a little inappropriate.

  10. Once I did forget one of my best friend’s birthdays, and she was going through a rough patch and was really, really upset with me. I felt so bad, but there wasn’t really anything I could do after the fact except apologize. It was something I felt so awful about, though I knew rationally that at a certain point, I should let myself off the hook because as you said, things happen. The next year, she forgot mine (I genuinely think she really forgot), and I told her it really didn’t matter, and it was fine. I think it actually made us better friends, in the end… maybe because we learned to forgive each other.

  11. San

    I could not agree with you more, Rachel. This is EXACTLY how I handle birthday greetings and I am very offended if a – in my opinion close friend – just leaves me a “happy birthday” on my FB wall.

    I do use a birthday reminder myself to keep track of all the birthdays, but come on… FB? That basically does the birthday greeting for you. If you’re close to someone, make a little bit more effort to make them feel special on their special day!

  12. Hmmm, interesting. I agree for the most part with the hierarchy mentioned in your post…but I also feel like I “have” to post on FB. I feel rude if it’s clear that I’ve been on and I see that everyone has posted on a friend’s page and then I just… don’t? It feels like I am purposefully not acknowledging it. EVEN if I call/send a card, etc., something in me feels rude not acknowledging if I see it. Which does say something about the public nature of FB and the comments above about it being for other people and not necessarily the person.

    Now if I’m not on FB that day, I am indifferent. And I should say that I’m not an avid FB user- I check it but not on weekends and not on my days off and I rarely post. Still.

  13. Suzannah

    I think there are ladies who loves the opportunity to make a fuss over a friend on her birthday….heck as adults, birthdays are really the only time to say” hey girlfriend, it is all about you!”……for the majority of ladies our lives are focused on everyone but ourselves…
    so I think, if you remember ….call and just say…”you are so special to me!”

  14. Great topic, Rachel!

    I also agree with the hierarchy you’ve laid; for me I only write on FB walls if it’s someone whose birthday I wouldn’t know if it weren’t for Facebook.

    I’m pretty structured when it comes to sending cards though – I like to make sure they arrive on the actual birthday and if it’s an extra-special super close friend, I’ll also call. I have a friend who sends me a bday card every year, but it always comes about December 3 (my birthday is the 13th).

    This shows me that either a) she sends all her birthday cards at the beginning of the month or b) she just knows I’m in December! I still appreciate it more than if she’d just texted me though.

  15. Megan

    I’m so glad you posted this. It irks me when a friend I thought was close only acknowledges my birthday by a FB post.

  16. Caz

    I agree with this if your friends live in the same city/country as you do. Once you/they are overseas, it’s a whole new story.

    Not only, does an overseas move/extended travelling usually involve a new cell phone number that old friends may not have, but the time difference and long distance costs often means even leaving a message is difficult (you don’t want to wake the birthday-girl up at 4am). In that case, I think an email or Facebook message is more than appropriate. Despite remaining close friends (when you’re in close proximity), the lack of contact details etc. understandable.

    Also, what if friends gathered and celebrated your birthday with you very close to it’s actual date (ie Sat/Sun for a Monday b-day). They’ve already sent you wishes/gave cards/presents. Is a phone call the very next day necessary?

  17. Cat

    I, too, am a HUGE fan of the birthday cards. Aside from that, I could care less how someone wishes me a happy birthday. There is so little time in my life right now, that having to stop for niceties on the phone would be more of a chore than a happy surprise. I also think an email is somehow colder than a facebook wall post.
    I don’t know, I hope people don’t actually blow up such a small thing into any kind of issue. It’s a birthday. We’re not 7, here. We don’t need party hats and a cake. However someone chooses to wish me a happy birthday, it’s a welcome sentiment. And if they don’t at all, I can’t say it’s a problem for me.

  18. I post at the wall of the friend on her birthday but then afterwards, I totally forgot to call her to wish her. What category would I be? hehehe

  19. Erin

    Hey Rachel,
    It’s sorta funny that you wrote this piece the day of my sisters birthday! I have been going through a lot recently ( my bf has had some health problems of late) but I did remember to send her a gift last week so she’d have it for her birthday. I have been talking everyone’s ear off about her birthday and how old I feel blah blah…and then yesterday came and I honestly forgot. I took a ME day yesterdat and turned off my computer and phone and forgot to look at the calendar. I remembered all week, but for some reason yesterday I forgot. We are not the closest pair in the world (we are 6 yrs apart and both too young to appreciate the other) but i know she was upset that I didnt call. I ended up texting her at like 10:30 last night but I know that’s not enough. The point of this incredibly long post is that i think there are differences in the way you reach people. For me its a mix between importance and how busy I know they are. I don’t call if people are on rotations or studying for test. But I would if I knew that they’d pick up. I am pretty much anti-facebook so i dont usually know that its someones bday and i dont put it on their wall. And sometimes i forget the exact day so I feel bad if im too early or too late, but as a rule facebook is not a way I communicate.

  20. lorrie

    i did not realize that the facebook was the bad move but for my close friends i do get gifts and those tat arent close i mostly call

  21. I like how you broke this down. I am with you. If a close friend forgets my birthday, it stings quite a bit, although intent may not be personal. I am card sender so if we have had a close relationship at any given point in time, I am likely to send you a greeeting through the mail.

  22. scout

    Wow. I didn’t realize people might be pissed at me for wishing them a happy birthday on fb. Especially since ignoring it seems less treacherous.

    I’m glad that my BFFs don’t take such things so personally. If you are that close with a friend, then shouldn’t you be close enough to understand and/or not care at all about the manner of greeting? I’d like to think my relationships are based on more than such insignificant obligations. Sure, it may be indicative about where a relationship has moved to, but seriously? You all get upset when someone wishes you a happy birthday!?

    Getting a birthday wish is a wonderful little bonus, not a defining factor in my closest relationships.

  23. I kind of like to give everybody the benefit of the doubt so I wouldn’t be hurt if a friend wrote on my facebook page instead of called me. I would just be glad that they wished me a happy birthday in the first place. Of course I would rather have talked to her over the phone or celebrated with her in person but my friends and I are so busy and far away from each other that I can’t blame them. Maybe there is a lot more to the story of your friend and her MOH than she explained. I also like to send cards but I did that for a few years and NEVER got any kind of thank you or acknowledgement so I stopped. Most of my friends prefer a big outing for their birthday so I prefer to give them my personal attention then.

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  26. Still trying to make my way through past blog entries!

    It was my 30th birthday a couple of weeks ago, and I was on holiday in Thailand (yay). For the night of my birthday, three of my very good friends in Australia arranged an amazing nine course dinner cruise for my boyfriend and me, including singing waiters and birthday cake (the tenth course!). It was above and beyond anything I could have ever expected, especially because the friends weren’t anywhere near where I was. That is the top of the totem pole (or maybe some clouds floating above the top of the totem pole). In the past they have ordered things to be delivered to me as well, when we aren’t in the same country. Other friends send cards or texts or emails. They are all wonderful and remind me that people are taking time out to think about me. It’s humbling.

    At the other end of the scale, the Facebook wall posts. Not the ones that actually say something personal, or are sent in a message, or are linked to a funny picture or video. The ones that just say ‘Happy Birthday!’, or ‘Happy birthday, gurl!’ are the ones that bug me. The people who see a FB reminder or someone else posting a birthday message and feel like they need to do the same. I’d rather have a personalised message than one that essentially doesn’t say anything. I also judge when people leave these insipid messages for others. Maybe that’s just me, though.

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  29. To be honest I never really thought about the birthday etiquette at all, until the other day when my best friend didn’t wish me a happy birthday. I was hurt and upset about it. It doesn’t bother me if other people forget….but my best friend no way! I always remember his and make it special. I agree with your best friend you should call them to wish them a happy birthday rather than text or leave a wall message online. My best friend doesn’t like calling people and talking to them on the phone unless it’s really necessary and I have gotten used to his ways, so when I didn’t even receive a text message it felt like I’d been slapped in the face. He is away but what hurt was knowing that he has checked his Whats App. Instead I get a text yesterday that doesn’t even acknowledges my birthday but instead he sends a text message that usually makes me smile, but this time didn’t. I know you might think it petty of me, but normally I would have replied back as soon as I would see the message, but instead I choose not too because I was upset with him for not wishing me a happy birthday. I know the older you get birthdays shouldn’t mean much, but I’m sorry I like being fussed about by my best friend. Before he went away on holiday he did mention getting me a gift for my birthday. The receiving of gifts is the last thing I think about when it comes to my birthday as these are materialistic items, and I’ve never been a person who’s hocked on materialistic things. Words to me have a thousand indepth meaning and knowing that they came from my best friend would mean the world to me and make my day complete, but that never happened. Another day bites the dust. Maybe he’s got his reasons but I won’t know what they are until he comes back in three weeks time.

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