Eating and Aging, Giving and Receiving
Sharing a guest blogpost I wrote for Akteos Cross-Cultural Training.
The Dutch belief that not only you, but everyone close to you is to be congratulated when it is your birthday took me some time to get my head around.
Part I of this blogpost focused on the rituals of celebrating birthdays at work in the Netherlands and the USA. In Part II we look at some of the more “touchy” issues related to birthdays in the USA, as well as what birthdays reveal about the meaning of relationships in both cultures.
In the USA where fairness and equality are fiercely guarded rights, employee birthdays have become breeding grounds for other polarizing issues. There are passionate debates about whether or not it is good to encourage eating calorie loaded cakes in an environment where there is an obesity epidemic. Others will take issue about their right to privacy about their birthday, as ”age discrimination” is a hot topic in the workplace these days. It all boils down to the belief that ”what is good for one has to be equally good for everyone.”
Many clues about the relationship between the individual and the group are revealed in the contrasts between Dutch and American birthday celebrations. Being put in the spotlight on the day of your birthday in the Netherlands is literally not a free lunch. It does entail certain obligations to others – such as providing cake and paying for drinks. In the states, however your birthday is celebrated either work or at home, others are expected to provide for all your needs, nothing is expected in return.
It's not only my birthday!
The Dutch belief that not only you, but everyone close to you is to be congratulated when it is your birthday took me some time to get my head around. I remember the first time I answered the phone on my Dutch boyfriend’s birthday. It was his mother on the other end of the line, enthusiastically wishing me “Congratulations!” Completely confused as I was, I was at first silent and then said,”……um, yeah, it’s Martin’s birthday.” I get it now, and on cue, whenever I attend a Dutch birthday party, I shake hands and congratulate everyone in the room, even if I don’t know who the hell they are, just to play it safe.
The shared sense of achievement at having reached the birthday milestone is another expression of the unique attitude of the Dutch regarding the individual/group relationship. On the one hand, birthdays are seen as sacred occasions, which must be recognized as meaningful both in the workplace and at home. In Dutch culture, your own birthday or the birthday of a family member is accepted as a perfectly legitimate reason to avoid or cancel business appointments. Americans on the other hand, are incredulous if you would even suggest to miss an important meeting because of a birthday celebration.
It’s not that Americans don’t find birthdays important, it’s that it is considered a more private and individual affair. As Americans tend to split up their relationships into groups and categories – work relationships, sports relationships, school relationships etc., they confine their birthday celebrations to the appropriate group. Birthdays are generally celebrated at home or in a restaurant after work hours with family and a select group of friends. There tends to be a lot of flexibility about the date. The preference is to choose a date for a celebration when most people will be available; the birth date itself is not so sacred. In this spirit, people will often plan large birthday celebrations several months before or after the date of their birth.
How to deal with birthdays in an intercultural working environment
Because of the different meanings cultures give to birthdays, being dismissive about them can cause friction on international teams. The seeds of resentment and apathy are sown when people feel that what is important to them is being disrespected. The task-oriented American business executive could be blinded to the sensitivity of this issue, and risk some diminished commitment of colleagues and direct reports.
On the other hand, when doing business with Americans, it’s important to recognize the ”work comes first” attitude, and to appreciate that it has contributed to the drive and success of US companies worldwide. You may not get your day in the spotlight at the office, but if you tell an American it’s your birthday, you can count on an expression of good wishes, and once business is taken care of, a free drink!
Lisa Ross-Marcus, founder of In-Coaching, is an executive life coach and a intercultural trainer.