Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ensure a Fun Birthday: Throw Your Own Party

Solve this riddle: Two people are sitting together in a room. One is American and one is Russian. If it's the Russian's birthday, both of the people are having lots of fun. But if it's the American's birthday, neither one of them is having any fun at all. Why?

Of all the cultural differences that divide these two great nations, the way each typically celebrates birthdays is perhaps one of the most telling. Russians, as foreigners here have no doubt come to realize, are almost completely responsible for arranging their own celebration. This means they bring candy or cake or champagne with them to work for their fellow employees, and then they rush home and make an enormous dinner for their friends to enjoy later in the evening. They're not expected to buy their own presents, at least, but they are the masters of their own fate, and the fate of their guests, for the day.

Americans, to the contrary, consider it their right to do as little as possible on their birthday, preferring to lie back and let friends and well-wishers do most of the manual labor involved. Putting in an appearance is all the effort expected of the birthday person; the people around them are the ones who are responsible for making the day go well. To make their own cake or concoct some sort of party could even be construed as a show-offy or self-important gesture. Their friends will determine how festive a birthday they deserve.

Each of these methods has its advantages. The Russian path is ultimately the more modest of the two, because it doesn't have to be based on the surreptitious dropping of hints that Americans often find themselves resorting to in fear that their birthdays will mistakenly pass without fanfare. It's a tricky system, really -- you don't want to make a fuss in your own honor, but you do want other people to make a fuss, preferably as splashy a fuss as possible. Letting them know the big day is near without giving even the slightest appearance of making a fuss is no easy task. Fortunately, Americans are very subtle people.

Obviously these two patterns don't necessarily blend together perfectly. An American who sees a Russian slaving in the kitchen on his own birthday will be horrified by his own failure to have taken the entire matter into his own hands. And a Russian who sees an American sitting around idly on his birthday, impatiently tapping his fingers on the table and waiting for a party magically to appear, might possibly, just for a moment, think the American is the slightest bit arrogant or lazy. This, of course, couldn't be further from the truth.

People wishing to avoid their birthdays altogether, however, will be equally at home with either system. No one can force you to make your own party, and no one can force you to force them to make one, either.