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Seven Ways to Minimize Office Birthday Awkwardness

My first glimpse of an office birthday party was via the movie Office Space, when the corporate drones stand awkwardly around the cake and sing “Happy Birthday” to their boss in monotone voices. Flash forward seven years: the first company I worked for as a recent college grad had its monthly birthday celebration, and I had an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. There wasn’t anyone named Milton complaining about a lack of cake, but the fumbling attempts at small talk and the clumsy passing around of sheet-cake slices were one and the same. 

Why is it that, wherever you work, office birthday gatherings have the same atmosphere of awkwardness? We see these people every day, and yet the situation feels different when we’re holding small paper plates and plastic forks. Is it the guilt that eating all that sugar and butter provokes? Is it because the personal quality of birthdays feels odd in a professional environment? Regardless of the whys, I think there are ways around the awkwardness—if you’re willing to break a few office birthday party rules, that is. 

No more singing “Happy Birthday.”
Let’s be honest: does anyone really enjoy this tradition? Everyone mumbles along because no one wants his or her voice to stand out, and the person with the birthday forces a smile and looks at the ground until the song’s over. Unless your office is filled with karaoke superstars who love belting out “Happy Birthday,” perhaps it’s time to nix the song from birthday gatherings. Maybe everyone should just clap and call out their birthday wishes when the candles are blown out. 

The birthday person shouldn’t have to cut the cake.
Who came up with this one? If it’s your birthday celebration, you shouldn’t be expected to do the grunt work. Plus, no matter how you cut it, the first slice is always too large for everyone and is sure to get comments like “Whoa, that’s way too big!” and “I only want half that amount!” Who wants to get criticized for cutting his own birthday cake? Have the person in charge of HR draw names out of a hat to see who gets cake-cutting duty each time, or if someone in the office volunteers to be the official cake cutter, more power to her. 

Make it a cake free-for-all.
At my first office job, I was the receptionist and therefore almost always the cake cutter. It was my responsibility to hand out slices to coworkers, though I never understood why. If I simply put them on the table instead, people would be free to pick up a plate if they wanted to. This approach also eliminates the awkwardness of declining a piece and having someone ask loudly, “You don’t want cake?!” Just arrange the plates on the table, and the people will come—albeit hesitantly, since no one wants to be the first to go for cake. 

Think of it as a nice break from work.
I still can’t figure out why office workers’ gathering to enjoy afternoon dessert is so synonymous with awkward chats. I suspect events like these create a sense of forced intimacy because they center on people’s birthdays (people we don’t necessarily know that well). But if you focus on what birthday gatherings really are—a reason to leave your cubicle for a few minutes and catch up with office mates—then it seems a lot less uncomfortable. And when you act more at ease, people around you will, too. 

Set aside one day a month for staff birthdays.
Unless you have a very small staff, honoring everyone’s birthday individually could become tedious and costly. I’ve only worked in places that reserved a day to celebrate the birthdays that fell within a given month, and that usually worked out well. It also makes the occasion less pressure-filled, which falls in line with the “break from work” mindset I suggested previously. This might not work for every company, as some people who genuinely like having their special day honored. But it doesn’t hurt to suggest the change and see how people respond. 

If someone doesn’t want his or her birthday celebrated, don’t make it mandatory.
Not everybody likes birthdays. Not everybody enjoys being the center of attention, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Rather than forcing people to celebrate, give them the opportunity to bow out via their HR representative. You can still have cake day, but don’t guilt someone into standing in front of the group if she doesn’t want to. 

Don’t be the office grump.
Remember that episode of Seinfeld where Elaine railed against the office cake-centered celebration after her coworker commented, “I think it’s nice”? She cried, “What is nice? Trying to fill the void in your life with flour and sugar and egg and vanilla? I mean, we’re all unhappy. Do we have to be fat, too?” Don’t be Elaine and ruin it for everybody else. If you’re asked to break from work monotony in order to eat a piece of sugary, buttery deliciousness, that’s hardly something to complain about. 

In my experience, employees usually warm up as the celebration goes on, either because the sugar high’s putting them in a better mood or because the most awkward parts—the singing and the cake cutting and distribution—are at the beginning. Perhaps if we tweak tradition a little with regard to those aspects, that scene from Office Space won’t be such a fixture in corporate culture. Of course, maybe your office birthday party experience is different, and everyone sings heartily and dives happily into the cake. If that’s the case, don’t change a thing—you’re living the dream!

Updated April 8, 2011