Often as an immigrant I find myself stumbling upon things I did not know I did not know until the point when I had to know them. It is all the tiny cultural differences – some of them gulfs – which catch me off guard. Birthday etiquette has been a steep learning curve as a result.
Birthday parties seem to be a big deal here. The invitations are sent electronically and the RSVP happens on a website portal. It’s a bit impersonal but I applaud the efficiency of it and the paper-saving. Since arriving here in mid-October, my kids have been invited to a fair few birthday parties and for them to have been included in the guest list has been a lovely affirmation of how well they have fitted in at school. However, there was one recent birthday party that my eight year old decided he did not want to attend for a multitude of valid reasons. It was his decision so I, therefore, clicked “no” on the website to graciously decline the invite.
When I collected my 8 year old from school on Friday afternoon, he informed me that the girl whose party it was had informed him that people still have to present a gift even when they are not attending the party. She would, therefore, be OK with accepting the present on Monday. He was bestowing on me the dilemma of what he should buy for her since he doesn’t really know what girls are into. I explained to him that gifts are given to close friends or to people when you are attending the party. If you are not going to the party of a not-close friend then you do not need to present them with a gift.
But then I second-guessed myself – what if this was an aspect of American gift-giving, party-attending, birthday etiquette I was ignorant of? What if the proper way to handle an invitation is to present a gift whether attending a party or not?
Of course there was still no way I was going to proceed with a plan to buy a gift for a child whose party my son was not attending. That way bankruptcy lies. I have four kids. With over 20 kids in each of their classes, that is potentially 80+ parties to be invited to in a calendar year. At an average of $15 per birthday gift, that’s a potential $1200 per year. $1200! I don’t even spend that on birthday and Christmas presents for my own kids. Crazy. So whether it was considered good manners or not, it was just not going to happen.
However, a little bit of internet research, making inquiries of friends, confirmed that my original instinct was correct: there is no such expectation. Indeed many felt that there was not even a necessity to take a gift of any kind to a birthday party of a classmate but I would always consider it good manners to do so. It did, however, mean we were off the hook having to deal with the conundrum of providing a gift for a child whose party was not being attended.
So basically this girl was doing a gift shakedown. Perhaps she was exploiting the fact that my son, as a new arrival in the US, would not know what the “rule” was for presents. More likely she was just being a bit of an avaricious little mare. You’ve got to admire her entrepreneurial chutzpah, however. She will no doubt go far in life.