‘Why are people extra nice when it’s your birthday?’

candle shaped like a middle finger coming out of a cupcake

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

When people wish you happy birthday they’re not celebrating your birth, writes Geoffrey O’Connor – they’re soothing their own assorted neuroses.

Birthdays are a consolation prize for those who have achieved nothing worthy of celebration — ie, all of us. While it’s comforting to know that birthdays are an ugly inevitability for everyone, this does not make them any easier. Expressions of love, friendship and devotion are always grotesque and only make these lousy anniversaries more unpleasant. So, why are people extra nice on your birthday? As is the case with most negative human behavioural patterns, it is often the perpetrators who can offer the most insight. I am one of those extra nice birthday people and here are a few key reasons why.

candle shaped like a middle finger coming out of a martini glass

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

Money, fame and power

These days success is all about networking – ie., using your charisma to leech off the rich, the famous and the powerful. It used to be easy to know who to schmooze in the good old days, now it’s much harder. In 2015 any creep can do an online coding course and become a dot-com billionaire overnight, and I want to keep as many of these ticking bitcoin time-bombs on my side as possible. Sometimes it costs money, but a well-timed espresso martini is worth a thousand kind words. Corporations call this an entertainment expense, and they would praise my resourcefulness in targeting just one sentimental occasion per year. Sometimes to get the prince you have to kiss a lot of frogs, but if you focus on the birthdays you only have to kiss them once a year.

Jealousy

Some people are outrageously brilliant and successful. Congratulating them all the time is exhausting. It’s more convenient and less taxing on the self-esteem to roll all congratulations into one brief ceremony where they get drunk, gracelessly flaunt their achievements and vomit in an Uber. Also, nobody enjoys praising someone for doing something they were too lazy and incompetent to do themselves. This humbling toast to mortality is a great way to cut them down to size and trivialise their other accomplishments.

Because I forgot last time

Lately I’ve been losing my edge in the birthday game. When I do forget someone’s birthday, I make a grand gesture and spend up on lavish, intensely personal gifts the following year. This is the gift-giving equivalent of make-up sex, or at least what I imagine make-up sex would be like.

There are other reasons why I might be extra nice to someone on their birthday, but they are basically all variations on those listed above. In a perfect world we’d all get a greeting card from our dentist and that would be the end of it, but growing old is not meant to be so easy. Next time you wake up to a barrage of icky birthday niceties, just remember it’s a small price to pay for the other 364 days of peaceful indifference. Sometimes you’ve just got to let people do what they have to do. After all, it’s not their fault you were born.

Portrait of Geoffrey O'Connor