Who Has Happier Birthdays? Germans vs Americans

Birthdays. You’ve got one, I’ve got one. Pretty sweet, right? How you celebrate yours is no better than mine, and how I celebrate mine is no better than yours… or is it?

German and American birthday traditions may at first appear very similar. Honestly, it took me well over one year living in Berlin until I began noticing the nearly imperceptible differences. Once I incorrectly trodden them, though, birthday cake might as well have been flung on my face. (Yuuuuum.) We all tend to get a little touchy around this time: we take our birthdays so personally. They symbolize when we came to be on this earth. Some of us use this day to define ourselves somehow. Therefore, if you do something “wrong” on someone’s birthday, celebrate it too much, too little or just not the right way, you may possibly hurt their feelings or offend them.

For instance, at a German party, I was chided for wishing the birthday girl - at her birthday party - "happy birthday." Apparently, she was celebrating INTO her birthday, not ON her birthday, a big and important difference in Berlin from my cultural upbringing. "Duh Aislyn, how could you not know this?" I had committed a pretty serious offense! So, to avoid following in my footsteps, if you get invited to a German fall INTO birthday party, meaning the party takes place the day before the person’s birthday, you should pretend like you have nooooo idea why you are there, just a regular get-together/party for the weekend or something. (Do bring a gift.) When midnight strikes, start up suddenly, surround the birthday girl, begin jumping about around her and sing or shout HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!

I have to admit; while foreign for me at first, these parties are a blast and a bit like New Year’s. Plus, only one person faces getting a year older. I suggest trying it out if you haven’t yet. In contrast, American culture doesn’t take this “don’t say happy birthday – it isn’t her birthday yet” so seriously. As long as you say happy birthday before the day has passed, we usually don't give a rat's ass. Just don't wait 'till after. Then we'll know you forgot and we'll assume you don't care about us at all :(

Another difference in the way Germans celebrate the good ol' Bday from the 'Amis' (pronounced " 'Aa-meez": a.... term... some Berliners use for us Americans) is that the Bday boy or girl treats his or her guests. If y’all go out drinking, he buys. And Germans think people come to their birthdays just for them… ha! In all seriousness, as an American I think it is a nice idea: the birthday boy, who is lucky to be alive, celebrates the people who contribute to his life, not the other way around.  And actually, perhaps the scales even out because guests do usually bring gifts. On the other side of the ocean, a very good German friend of mine had a delightful introduction to the American way of celebrating a birthday. She had her birthday while staying in Boston and partied with a bunch of American friends. They ate, drank, then drank some more. At the end of the night, expecting a heavy bill to pay, she discovered no bill to collect. Her friends paid for it, of course! Americans do like to give a good birthday pampering.

Considering these differences in how we celebrate our birthdays, I began to wonder, why? How deep do these differences go? Do they affect how we conceive the term ‘birthday’? I set out on my quest via the easiest and laziest way I could: SurveyMonkey and Facebook. I posted a few questions to people from across the globe – thank you to all who participated – and the responses I got fascinated me. I couldn’t believe some of the American responses weren’t coming from my own typing fingers!! For those of you interested in the full list of answers, please contact me. But to cut to the chase for the rest of you, I will put forth my general findings.

Before I start, I have to admit that the responses to one question in particular totally changed my outlook. Check it out.

Number of Germans who provided responses: 7
Number of Americans who provided a response: started with 12, but eventually dropped to 10.

The responses of the seven Germans trended around the same general topics: spending time outside with family/friends, eating good food, laughing, drinking, enjoying cake, maybe partying with alcohol, and presents were only somewhat relevant. The variation of the American responses, however, holy-hell! They definitely seemed to account for the vastness and variation of our enormous nation!! Responses ranged from wanting to go to the beach, music concerts, national parks, gun shooting, kayaking, and having a surprise and/or costume party. Additionally, there was a general fear of their birthday being forgotten. (I’m guilty of this as well.) Of course, family and friends were mentioned often, as were the use of phone calls and sending cards for birthday “traditions.”

This probably should not be surprising, and to be honest, it isn’t. Many of us are spread over the entire country – or elsewhere… - and our friends and family often cannot meet for every birthday. So, cards replace dinners, phone calls, hugs. Also, we tend to have a more enthusiastic way about ourselves. I think you may have seen one or two of our movies. Or heard us talking in a Berlin tram car. Need I say more? Reading these responses, I know I totally belong to them. My best birthday EVER was in-fact a surprise party. My mom organized a huge game-night and invited ALL of my friends. They were waiting for me in the game store, cheering “happy birthday” when I walked inside – I couldn’t believe it. I had so much fun and felt touched to the core of my being. I still feel touched by it. To be fair, I have had and loved several other birthdays!! The surprise element, here, though… it made my heart skip a beat.

This magical feeling we aim for on birthdays is quite enchanting. Who wouldn’t like a surprise party, even a little one? When you think it’s just a normal day, your closest friends remind you how special you are with your favorite meal and wine already prepared on the dinner table. Sweet right? What gave me pause about our American way, however, were the responses to a very important question I asked: “Do you like celebrating your birthday?” Six out of the seven Germans responded “yes.” The one who didn’t blame too high on expectations associated with birthdays. Wanna guess how many of the 10 Americans liked celebrating their birthday? Four. That’s right: FOUR. Six did not like celebrating their birthday.

I should highlight that these findings are in no way scientific. I did not control the groups. I did not match the groups of Germans and Americans by age – although the two groups are pretty even in that regard – nor did I match them by any other measure. Of the responses from my survey, I just compared the answers of Germans with the answers of Americans. That aside, I cannot let go the ratio of Germans who like celebrating their birthday, and that of the Americans.

Can you?

Six out of seven.
Four out of ten.

Why? It could just be these particular participants. But, for the purpose of speculation, let’s push that aside. It could also be that Germans don’t have such large distances separating close friends and family. Therefore, birthdays are more pleasant because those special people are usually physically present. Or, because Germans are not as enthusiastic and dreamy as Americans, their humble expectations for their birthday make celebrating it ultimately more pleasant. Perhaps it is a combination of these factors. Maybe Americans get a bit lost in the “bigger is better” mentality, sometimes losing track of the more humble aspects of what makes a birthday “special,” which was a common thread through most responses: the joy of being with those we love.

And what is it about the American anxiety – I’ve got it too – for our birthday being forgotten? Are we losing an opportunity to celebrate life and those in it simply because we are scared other people will forget we were born on that day? It is our day, so maybe we should take the reins and share with the world how great life is to us. I personally like – and miss – American enthusiasm, so I definitely don’t think we should lose that. I really like how special we make birthdays.

But we might consider better directing that enthusiasm; instead of directing it towards hoping others do something for our birthday, and taking it personally if they don’t meet our enthusiastic expectations, remember that we only gain from empowering ourselves and that ultimately our birthday – and how we experience it – is under our control.

We can still have and spread our enthusiasm of our birthday magic by celebrating it the way we want but we might also consider hosting and ‘treating’ those in our lives who make a positive difference in us, similar to how Germans fork the bill on their birthday. By evening out the scales between the birthday boy/girl and their fans, maybe we can remain more centered in that common thread I found in reading people’s answers: the joy of being with those we love. Then, maybe we’ll be as happy to celebrate our birthday as Germans seem to be.

Thoughts? Opinions? Questions? Birthday-in-Berlin experiences of your own? I would love to hear them! Please comment below or fill out my short survey here. Gif Image by Daniel M Gill

By Aislyn Rose
Can't leave Berlin for the challenge and simultaneous celebration of the "me" in me is just too exhilarating. For now, at least. From Utah, USA. In Berlin since Jan 2011.

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