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6 Rules for ‘Happy Birthday’ Etiquette in the Age of Facebook

5 minute read
Karol Markowicz is a writer in New York City. She has worked on GOP campaigns in four states.

We’ve reached a point in history where social media has been around long enough to require some etiquette rules. Don’t post about fights you’re having with your spouse. No inspirational quotes. Limit pictures of your children to only the supercute ones.

But birthdays have become complicated to the point where people don’t know the rules anymore. Facebook has changed the whole birthday game, as it were. No longer do people get credit for remembering the day you graced humanity; now they get an alert (and a follow-up reminder!) about it. The ease of remembering has led to confusion about how to offer the appropriate “happy birthday” greeting.

To many, the day of one’s birth remains something to celebrate. Birthday wishes are received, cake is eaten, perhaps gifts are given. Sure, there are some who shrug off the whole thing as a celebration for children. But those people have dark, black souls and should be shunned.

For everyone else, here are the general guidelines for modern-day happy-birthday wishing:

  • Midnight, in person: A requirement for your spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend. Watch the clock, and then give your special someone a big kiss. Don’t tell me you don’t stay up until midnight—you’re not 100, and if you are, it’s all the more reason to greet 101 as soon as it arrives.
  • Midnight, via call or text: If you’re close with your siblings, you call at midnight. You have the same eyes, you put up with your crazy parents together, you know things about each other that can’t be put into words. Honor them with a call at midnight. Text if you must, but then follow up with a call the next day. You get bonus points if you get your greeting in before their spouse does.
  • By telephone: Old friends with whom you are still close and any member of your family should get a phone call. If you’ve known someone since you were children or teenagers and you stayed in touch in the days before social media and cell phones, you call on their birthday, even if you think a Facebook wall post would suffice. You wish them well, you remind them of how awesome they are, and you make plans (which you then keep!) to celebrate their birthday in the near future. It should go without saying—but it doesn’t—that you call your mother, your aunt and anyone you are related to on their birthday. Don’t leave messages (ever, really, but especially not on someone’s special day). You’re not as busy as you think—try them again.
  • Calling preferred; texting permitted: Friends you’ve made in the past five years. New friends are where the birthday greeting gets somewhat tricky. As you get older, you will meet fewer new people and connect with only a small number of them. If you are close enough to text a few times a week, then a text is the minimum of what you should do. If you talk on the phone, like people did in the days of yore, then you need to call. Even if you don’t text but go out once or twice a month, recognize how difficult it is to meet someone and hit it off after a certain age, and at the minimum, text them to say happy birthday.
  • Post on a Facebook wall/send a tweet: Old friends with whom you keep in touch on Facebook only. Acquaintances you like, but with whom you have limited interaction. Twitter friends. I’m not against the Facebook wall post or a tweet, but it’s not for every person in your life. If your friendship “lives” on social media, it’s fine to keep it there. But understand that it’s not for everyone.
  • On your own Facebook wall/Instagram feed: Don’t do this. Really. We all know you love your BFF 4EVA, but unless you’re under 20—and even then—putting up a collage of pictures and wishing your friend a happy birthday on your own page is just cheesy. The exception to this might be a milestone birthday or during a year when your friend has really helped you through a hard time. Otherwise, just don’t. Spouse and sibling birthday wishes in this manner are sometimes O.K., but again, limit them to special birthdays, not yearly.
  • Celebrating birthdays, whether your own or those of family and friends, is a happy occasion. Let’s not mar that with overuse of the Facebook wall or texting when we should call. Social media should be complementary to other kinds of interaction, not in place of it. And birthdays are a good time to pause and reflect—offline—on the important relationships in your life.

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