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Milestone birthday celebration etiquette

To pay or not to pay—that is the question.



I have approached middle age, I am afraid, and so have many of my girlfriends. So, just before the summer break, I had a few 40th birthday celebrations to attend.

Of course, your 40th is a milestone occasion, and it is entirely up to you how you want to celebrate. Some people fancy a huge party, whereas others might just want to retire to a dark room and cry for hours. And it should be up to you what option you go for.  

However, be prepared that some people will discuss and judge. Especially in an expat world where we all come from such different backgrounds and cultures that, inevitably, we would shock each other at some point. And birthday celebration etiquette can be one of those tricky moments in your expat life.

I still recall my 25th birthday party as one of the best I have had. I lived back home then, in Baku, Azerbaijan.

My American girlfriend decided to organize a party for me. It was a gorgeous summer night and we had dinner on the outdoor terrace overlooking the sea. The waves were crashing over the black rocks and I was surrounded by family and friends. It was a fantastic night. But, at the back of my mind, a concern was slowly building up. 

How much would it cost?

I had a good job and prices for a local dinner like that one were not high back then. However, there was more than thirty of us, drinking and eating non-stop. I was prepared to pay, but to my huge surprise, that was not expected. Everyone chipped in when the bill arrived. In fact, because it was my birthday, I was not allowed to pay for myself!

That was my first experience of a not-paying-for-everyone style party. Never before had I expected not to pay for everyone on my birthday. That, in my culture, was unheard of.

After I moved to the UK, I found that we would often go out for dinners for a girlfriend’s birthday and everyone would just pay for themselves.

However, when it comes to a milestone birthday, things are not as straightforward.

It is a lot more common to throw a party, often in a hired venue and invite a large number of friends. Some people clearly treat special birthdays as a small wedding. A friend of mine in New York was having a fancy party on a hired boat and was deeply offended that I did not come. To me, it was a birthday, not his funeral or a wedding. What is a big deal? But, in many cultures, 40th is a big deal.

At a friend’s 40th recently, a friend whispered to me that she was shocked she was invited to an expensive dinner at a 5-star hotel and expected to pay, as well as chip in for a gift.

“A bit cheeky,” she added, “isn’t it?” 

I, personally, was not so sure. 

You see, when I lived in London, I went back home to Azerbaijan to celebrate my 30th. I invited a large number of friends and that time, on my British pound salary, I could easily afford to pay for everyone’s meal, especially since the whole feast came up to US 250.

Of course, in a situation like that, it is oh, so easy! to be generous. 

However, to throw a party like that in England, in a decent place, would cost you an absolute fortune. Let’s face it, not many people can afford this option.

Now, of course, you have a choice. You can choose not to go out to a restaurant at all rather than make people pay. But, in the country where average houses are tiny, and outside is too wet and miserable, where else is there to celebrate?

So I was not that shocked or offended when a couple of my friends in Doha chose to go out for their 40th, and expected their friends to pay for themselves. I have been to so many different celebrations in my life that I don’t have any specific expectations anymore.

So, should you get asked to the Ritz or somewhere else fancy for someone’s birthday, keep your mind open and bring a lot of cash, just in case. You might be expected to pay but then again, you might be pleasantly surprised and get a free night out! Just remember, we are all different and there is no correct way. 

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