Do you work in an office? I do, and it's a small one, with barely half a dozen people. We have the informal intimacy that grows in a small group that spends 40 hours a week together - like a family.
My office - and the company that my office serves - is a rare one in today's economy. Most of my company's 30 some employees have been here a long, long time. Our boss has been here 20 years, and there were three 20-year veterans in the office. Due to the long history and stability the family metaphor is particularly apt - although that's starting to change.
I've been here less than five years. This year, we've had two people retire, and now we have two new people. I would bet you that in another three years, we'll have a whole new roster.
Workplaces, like families, have customs, a common language, common habits. We get to know one another very well - sometimes too well. We each carve out personal territory. Sometimes we clash over it. And we have family rituals - like birthday celebrations.
Birthdays can be a big deal at some workplaces; at others they're ignored. I'm not much of a birthday person - I liked the way they celebrated birthdays at an old job of mine - the boss let you have an unofficial day off!
Here in this office, the custom was to have an afternoon birthday party, complete with cake. Although each time a different person volunteered to get the cake, the veteran employees were so stuck in their ways it had to be the same thing each year. For C. it had to be a certain kind of Marie Callendar pie. For D. it had to be chocolate cake from a particular bakery.
There were strict food perferences to be honored, too - M. couldn't eat nuts. D. hated cheesecake, and T. could not abide strawberries.
Even in my short time here, I could see the ritual escalate. When it was her turn, T. would bring in cute party table settings from the 99 Cent Store. D. would one-up her. We started providing not only cake, but also refreshments - soda from the machine wouldn't do, we had to have bottles of French lemonade! Friends and carpoolers, M. and D. would give one another little gifts. Then, so T. and C. wouldn't feel bad, we'd make sure they got little gifts, too. There were elaborate ruses followed to spring birthday party surprises on people - the honoree would be asked to attend an emergency meeting in the closed conference room that afternoon. Surprise!
It all began to get too expensive, too much trouble, and too fraught when something went wrong, which was inevitable as new people joined our office. Like the time someone bought a chocolate cake flavored with Grand Marnier - not knowing that the birthday girl was a recovering alcoholic. As her slice was placed before her, the scent made her recoil. She couldn't eat a bite.
One year, four office mates were on Weight Watchers - so only two people ate birthday cake, and the dieters muttered resentment for having to kick in their five bucks.
So, when the two veterans retired, I saw it as an opportunity to halt the birthday arms race. It was my birthday next, so I called for a moratorium on birthday parties. I talked with the staff when our boss was on vacation - we had a temp office worker, a Weight Watcher, a guy, two vacant positions and me. They all agreed - no birthday party for me. The next birthday that came around, we did nothing and the boss didn't even notice.
A period of peace and stability reigned in the office for over a year. There were no longer bulky cake-boxes smuggled into the fridge. No more discrete collection envelopes circulating. Birthday cards still landed in mailboxes, but no more parties. We filled one vacancy before the hiring freeze; nine months later we filled the second.
Monday, the Boss came into my office and closed the door behind her. "It's L.'s birthday on Thursday," she whispered. I thought we could do something for her. Can you find out what her favorite dessert is?"
Sigh. Like all arms races, it starts with a single incident.
What do you do about birthdays where you work?