An email: Please join me in celebrating my 30th birthday with dinner and drinks at… this expensive-ass, four-dollar-sign tapas restaurant. Carbon-copied are fifteen of the sender’s closest friends. Or, worse, they’re BCC’ed, like some kind of murder mystery dinner party.
A Facebook invite: The one friend who still uses it is annoyed that you—who can’t decide which is more horrific, Mark Zuckerberg or losing access to your prom photos—haven’t RSVPed.
A group text: Full of numbers you don’t have saved, it somehow becomes an official group chat among strangers. Competitively cheeky memes to confirm they’ll be in attendance and can’t wait for the big event. Spurts of I’m running late texts minutes before the reservation time. Photos and Boomerangs the next morning. That’s literally hundreds of unwanted text messages.
My mom is always telling me that a birthday is a celebration of another year of life, and that I should always do something to celebrate because no one else will. So it feels ridiculous to complain about how someone else decides to celebrate their birthday. But then, at least once a year, I get invited to a group birthday dinner at a restaurant and feel a sense of dread.
Saying “no” to a friend’s birthday wish simply because I think it’s a lackluster way to celebrate feels ornery. I know that the friend will spend every minute up until they’re actually seated worried people might not show up. Look at what happened to Carrie at her—appropriately sized—35th birthday dinner on Sex and The City. So, I keep showing up, even though every single time my fears are proven to be true.
Let’s start with the cost of a birthday dinner. Living in New York City, group birthday dinners have set me back as much as $250, and never less than $75—the cost of a plane ticket home and at least a week’s worth of groceries, respectively. My bank account and I resent this.
I’m broke, so, shortly after receiving the invite, I look up the restaurant menu to get an idea of how much money I’ll be spending on my share of the meal. If it’s a ‘small plates’ restaurant, I don’t even bother. No amount of hypothetical budgeting can account for the person who “orders for the table” without consulting anyone. The person who orders five drinks to your one. The shady person who has to leave early so they leave cash that doesn’t include the tip or tax. The question of whether you should all chip in and pay for the birthday person or not.
At the end of the meal, no matter what private negotiations you’re having with your inner accountant, it is inevitably decided that it’s easiest to just split everything. I walk in with enough money for takeout meals for the rest of the week and leave with Mint alerting me that I’ve exceeded my ‘food and drink’ budget for the month.
I understand the impulse to celebrate your birthday with a dinner. Dinner is where all the good stuff happens, at least in movies and on TV. Tensions are brought to the surface, and truths are revealed. There’s disastrous family introductions and under-the-table footsies and locked eyes with inconvenient lovers.
But, in real life, birthday dinners at restaurants are too loud, too dark, and too crowded to amplify these small dramas. It’s impossible to have a meaningful discussion at tables pushed together to fit fifteen people, or when you’re split up across two different tables. You’re left yelling ‘so how do you know the birthday girl?’ over other people’s conversations and calling it a good time. Intimacy, that’s what’s lost. And while meeting new people can be thrilling, I personally don’t want to commit to an entire meal making small talk with your best friend from college who’s in town for your birthday.
Because I’ll probably keep getting invited group dinners—at least until my friends start doing birthday trips, pray for me—I have a couple of ground rules I’ve set for myself, and a couple of suggestions to those sending out the invites.
If we’re “friends” as in the last time we talked was you inviting me to your last birthday party, please don’t invite me. Dinner should be sacred, a space where only six people in the world matter for one hour. That’s right, six people is the cut off. (Be honest: Do you really have that many friends?) If you can get a private room and pre-fixe menu to let everyone know what they’ll pay upfront (including drinks), even better.
Or take the restaurant of the equation. Invite people over to your apartment, cook, or get food catered. Order some pizzas. Pizza parties are still very hip. Get your own booze—or ask guests to bring it—and get intimate.
I’m biased because this is exactly how I celebrated my 28th birthday this year. People arrived when they could and left when they needed too. I didn’t feel pressure about who was going to show up because I was content in my own house. I could always just pivot to celebrating with a bottle of wine and a joint, alone. Not to toot my own horn but, I don’t know, let me plan your next birthday party? Think of all the joy you’ll bring to people on your birthday, including yourself, by taking it down a notch.