A Very Long Way of Saying Happy Birthday

A Very Long Way of Saying Happy Birthday August 13, 2019

Here, have a chocolate pot.

The Facebook birthday function on my device has been broken for the whole month of August—half over as it is. One birthday name appears on the side every morning, followed by the number of birthdays of my friends, but when I click on it, a blank white unresponsive screen comes up. If I really want to know whose birthday it is, I have to go over to a proper computer and remember to look, and then go through the list methodically wishing people Many Happy Returns of the Day. But getting to an actual computer is not a regular occurrence for me. Though they abound in this household, they are all occupied by people who never consider my feelings.

Which allows me to broach a delicate but important issue—Who should decide one’s social obligations? Social Media? Technology? The cobbled-together cracking sense of social order one makes for oneself? Tradition (such as it is)? The church? Who?

This is important for me because I am anxious to do the Right Cultural Thing whenever possible. My anxiety arises from the fact that I have often been in the position of not know what the Right Thing is. If you grow up on in one place but are technically “from” another place, you usually find yourself guessing about the mores and expectations of whichever place you happen to find yourself that day (or decade). You can’t take what you know to be true in one place, and then apply it haphazardly to every other place. Well, you can, but you oughtn’t.

Take breaking something as an example. Say you visit a friend in America and knock over your glass of Pinot on her fluffy soft, cream-colored carpet. You will leap up, of course, rush into her kitchen, valiantly endeavoring to save the carpet and the glass, covering yourself in apologies. Your friend will also leap up and repeatedly explain that it’s no big deal, it’s just a carpet, who even cares. You will feel bad, though, and will buy her something like another bottle of wine, or a glass if you broke it. Of course, this is not universal. If you apply this method across every friend you have on the whole continent. It won’t always work. But basically, it’s up to you to apologize a lot, and up to your friend to tell you it’s no big deal.

Ok, now go to France. Same carpet, same glass of wine, same catastrophe. Except that in France, you can blame your friend for having a white carpet. ‘Why do you have a white carpet?’ you can say. ‘Mon Dieu, who even does that!’

Now go to where I grew up in Mali. There is no white carpet. But you put the old tin cup down too heavily on the ground and it’s too thin and it shatters and your warm Fanta oozes out onto the ground. You cover yourself in apologies, but at some point, you have to just let it go. And under No Circumstances should you try to replace the tin cup. Months later you can arrive at your friend’s house with some completely unrelated gift, like some cake or something, and never speak of the tin cup. But your friend will know what you are doing, as long as you never mention it.

I haven’t traveled widely enough to take us through Asia and South America etc., but you know that at which I am driving. You stand to make one ghastly mistake upon another, not even knowing what you are doing.

Now enter social media and the minefield created by bright young people who don’t think about these kinds of things. “We want to connect the world,” they say, though why they want to do this is never very brilliantly articulated. I think it’s because they’re trying to play God, but what do I know. And they, bouncing their algorithms around like so many potentially ruinous rubber balls in a carefully arranged living room filled with wine glasses, giants playing croquet in the heavens and making the earth quake beneath them, kingdoms and houses falling to the ground because someone thought it might be fun to change the way the feed loads (boy, none of those words should go together in a sane world), sitting around in their open-concept thoughtspace and think, “let’s let everyone wish everyone a Happy Birthday!”

This, by the way, is of a piece with the “We care about you and your memories, here look at this post from five years ago.” Oh! What? Was that a picture of your dog right before you had to send him on to Jesus? Oopsie. Oh! Was that your cancer-ridden friend who died four days later? Sorry! We Totes Care Though.

What is the real cost of wishing every one of your Facebook friends a Happy Birthday? Monsieur Zuckerberg, in trying to bring the world together as one, is banking on the American tradition of kindly wishing people a happy birthday on their birthday—a cultural activity not shared around the world by any means. He is also banking on American openhearted good cheer. What could possibly be wrong with wishing your friends a happy birthday?

Well, for one, not everyone loves their birthday. Some people have a hard time with it.

For another, even if you love your birthday, Monsieur Zuckerberg is offering you the chance to evaluate yourself and your worth by the good wishes of a lot of people who don’t know you very well. I have 1,116 Facebook friends. A lot of them I know, most of them I don’t know, all of them I have lovely feelings about, of course. But only three or four of them have a real social obligation to remember my birthday. But what if you are insecure or alone? Or what if you have a husband like me, who is competitive? He will ask you how many of your friends wished you a happy birthday—its always statistically some percent of your friends, like maybe 10% or something—and then make sure to compare when it’s his birthday. Or you might silently scroll through your friends to see how you measure up against them, in numbers. To say this at all, of course, is distasteful and vulgar. But that’s the whole point—to push us ever more into the unhappy and anxious world of likes and appreciations and clicks, of social cohesion based on the feelings of the crowd rather than the people who have taken the trouble to know and love you for real.

It turns out that the emotional and spiritual cost of the whole world wishing the whole world a happy birthday, though hidden, can be quite high. Just as is the business of sharing and liking. Every time I am invited to push like, I have to make a tiny decision about what kind of value I place on the post under my gaze. Do I like it? Do I like this person? Do I want to be associated with it? For some, this judgment is very easy (Matt Kennedy). For others, it’s much more difficult and wearing, especially when you add up the likes over time and space (me). I live in a world constrained by the fear of doing the wrong thing, of getting into trouble. So every like or share (which I just don’t do because it’s too stressful—that’s why I take articles and links I like and put them in a list on my blog so that I can see them and know that I read interesting things and became a more interesting person, it’s a quiet way I create friction for myself in a supposedly frictionless world) comes to me at a higher cost than it is meant to.

But I would suggest that for everyone, even for those who enjoy it, there is a cost, at least in time and attention, if not in anxiety.

I’m not suggesting, though, that we should all stop wishing each other a happy birthday. This is my protracted way of saying a HAPPY BELATED BIRTHDAY to all my dear friends who had birthdays in August that I was unable to see because of my technological glitch. And that if I haven’t wished you birthday, for one reason or another, this year, it’s about me being uptight and not about you and how valuable you are. Indeed, your worth as a person has Nothing Whatsoever To Do with how many likes you get or how many people in the nether reaches of the internet knew you were there or had the felicity you showing up in their feeds at just the moment when they happened to be online. Or who had a glimpse of you and then the wretched thing refreshed before they had a proper look, and then spent twenty whole minutes scrolling through the whole thing, but then blew past it, and then wandered away in true frustration and anguish, cursing the darkness and the thoughtlessness of the giants who don’t even know what it is like to live out a quiet, unknown, anxiety-laden day.

Happy Birthday is what I’m saying. A Very Very Very Happy Birthday.

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