Cake? Candles? Card? A dozen do’s and don’ts for handling adult birthday awkwardness.

(Sarah Berman/MEDILL)

By Sarah Berman
Medill Reports

Does hearing the happy birthday tune make you cringe? Do you dread seeing the number of candles on your cake increase each year? You’re not alone. Celebrating birthdays dates back to ancient times, but after turning 21, many people feel like this milestone starts becoming fretful instead of fun. Whether it’s time to celebrate your latest trip around the sun or someone else’s, here are some suggestions for overcoming adult birthday anguish.

Do shift your birthday mindset from aging to gratitude

“Gratitude means having the privilege to age another year,” said Nicole Bentley, staff therapist and intake director at Cityscape Counseling in Chicago. “I encourage my clients to turn their attention toward what they can feel grateful for in terms of aging and their birthday.”

Don’t stress over sending reciprocal birthday wishes

Don’t keep score. “You aren’t obligated if someone wished you a happy birthday to pay attention to when theirs is,” said Lizzie Post, an etiquette expert at the Emily Post Institute and the great-granddaughter of Emily Post. It’s thoughtful and considerate to acknowledge the birthdays of the people closest to you, but it’s not like “take a penny, give a penny.” 

Do see if your office lets you opt in or out of a birthday celebration

Many — but not all — offices hold monthly celebratory gatherings to ensure that everyone gets recognized. “The last company I worked for, people needed to opt in if they wanted their birthday acknowledged in any way,” said Jill Kruger, associate vice president and head of compensation and HR analytics at Atlantic Financial Group. 

Do keep track of birthdays for key people in your life 

Mark special days on an iPhone calendar. If you don’t want your monthly schedule riddled with confetti notifications, note the big day in someone’s contact information. “If you want to be a birthday person, you have to actively try to be a birthday person,” Post said.

Don’t ask people their age

“It’s definitely not polite to ask somebody their age, but I think we are beyond the point where age is something to be embarrassed about,” Post said. It’s only OK to discuss if the person being celebrated has already made the number public knowledge.

Do make it clear who’s paying for the celebration

“Nobody said you have to treat the person on their birthday,” Post said. “I think it’s really, really nice when friends are able to pay, but a lot of people are totally willing to be able to pay for their plate on their birthday.” The organizer should convey financial details before the party, which can be done via text, email or phone call. Is the group treating the guest of honor? If it’s not in your budget, politely decline the invitation.

Don’t mention gifts on an invitation

“Adult birthdays don’t come with the obligation of gifts, and you need to be aware that there is no including a wish list,” Post said. Also, if “no gifts, please” is on an invitation, take it seriously. If you need to bring something, you can’t go wrong with a card. But feel confident showing up gift-free.

Do let the birthday girl or guy design the guest list

Even if someone else is throwing the birthday party, the person-of-honor decides who’s on the invite list. Maybe for big birthdays someone wants a giant celebration, but other years that person just wants to hang out with two friends.

Do tell people it’s your birthday if you want them to know

No one is a mind reader. Remind people — or put the big day on your Outlook calendar to subtly get out the word.

Don’t assume how people plan to celebrate

Not everyone wants to go crazy on their birthday, even if it’s a big one, like 21. Instead, say, “Happy birthday! What are you up to today?” Post suggested. Maybe it’s the highlight of the year, or maybe it’s just another day of the week. People can celebrate how they’d like. It’s their birthday, not yours.

Do own it if you forget someone’s birthday

You can apologize, but don’t sweat it. It isn’t a big deal. “There are plenty of times where there’s no good reason for you to have known it was someone’s birthday,” Post said.

Do think about how you want to celebrate.

If you’re not a party animal, skip the huge bash. “I encourage people to pretend as if they’re going to spend their birthday alone,” Bentley said. “Then, I want them to think about what an ideal day would look like for them and invite some friends along.” No guilt!

Sarah Berman is a graduate journalism student in the magazine specialization at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @sarahberm