Why Group Birthday Dinners Are the Absolute Worst

By: Liz Newman

Credit: Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

I can’t remember the last time I was pumped for a group birthday dinner. Probably because that time never existed.

Think back to your childhood birthday dinners: they’re always an obligation. When you’re a kid, they’re what you have to endure before your actual birthday party. You’re sandwiched between extended family, usually at a restaurant your parents picked (because this dinner is actually more about them, you’ll get your turn!), and therefore seldomly eating something you actually like. You force a smile, and assure yourself it will all be worth it later when you’re tearing it up at laser tag with your friends.

Fast-forward to adulthood, and the birthday dinner is still an obligation, but a far bigger one; typically with no promise of laser tag to temper the pain. There’s still a strikingly similar game element to it, however, and coincidentally it’s a game most of us were familiar with as a child: capture the flag.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: how could I compare something like capture the flag to something like birthday dinners?

Let’s just say it’s not my first time comparing something terrible to something incredible.

One of the reasons capture the flag was the game of choice for schools and camps alike was because it was the easiest one to just throw everyone into, a mishmash of misfits if you will, and birthday dinners are no different. In fact, whoever is hosting it will likely over-invite – gotta factor in those friends who smartly flake!

And good luck if the host is slightly insecure, because this dinner attendance will double to compensate for their self-worth. Every seat in the private room – that was specifically reserved for this horrific occasion – will be full, even if it’s with those people from work he/she badmouths constantly. But it doesn’t matter. All that does matter to this person is if you and everyone invited come away thinking the host has soooo many friends who all just want to celebrate the anniversary of their uterine deportation!

You know better than that.

Credit: Flickr/Will Clayton

Perhaps the most ridiculous part about birthday dinners is that the person you actually came to celebrate will ultimately be the one with whom you spend the least amount of time. So where you sit at this dinner all of a sudden becomes as important as the lab partner you picked in freshman biology. (You were stuck with that dude all semester, and this dinner will feel about that long.)

Even if you do manage to nab the middle – which means at the very least the appetizers will be front and center – you’ll still only catch a glimpse of the host; if you’re lucky, he or she may even wave at you while you’re served hearty helpings of small talk about how much whatever-the-hell-his-name-is loves their new job.

In other words, both birthday dinners and capture the flag are big on quality time with everyone on the team except its star – i.e., the birthday dinner host and one who actually captures the flag. 

I have a scar on my forearm from Emily Kirkman*. We were doing a “pull-over,” a controversial capture-the-flag move that is banned in some schools, likely due to the permanent disfigurement that can ensue.

How it works: you and someone from the opposite team face-off right over the territory line, and each tries to pull the other over to their side. Whoever wins gets to personally escort the defeated party to jail, and feel really great about themselves.

The pull-over here is considerably less physical (excluding the instances in which I’ve been literally dragged to dinner), but still just as real. The “territory line” is your conscience. You want to just RSVP with a fat “Will not be attending” – you’re short on cash, that restaurant is absurdly overpriced, and you refuse to feel bad about it. You’re an adult! 

But then someone, possibly even yourself, reminds you that this person helped you nab that promotion, and always comes to your birthday party (markedly not at a restaurant), because they’re such a good friend, and you know if this was reversed (writer’s note: it wouldn’t be) they’d be there in a second. Or, if your friend is Dave Infante – who ironically hates birthdays – you’re simply driven to attend by pure, unadulterated fear. Whatever the reason, before you know it, your grip slips, and you’re in enemy territory.

Welcome to jail, son.  

Credit: Flickr/Steven Depolo

A capture-the-flag victory seems like a team accomplishment, but only the person who actually stole the flag really wins. However, that person will be secretly resented by their middle-school peers for being faster and more agile.

Similarly, unless you had the night of your life (you didn’t) or at least the best meal of your life (you also didn’t), it’s virtually impossible to not begrudge your host, because hell hath no fury like people who paid $116.24 each for crappy flank steak, one mozzarella stick, and a vodka soda.

Everyone always thinks they paid too much, which assures that all you’ll hear for the next several hours (because that’s how long it will take to split 25 credit cards) is, “I only ate from the bread basket and Rick underpaid!” Rick only ever has cash, and never enough of it.

Bottom line: everyone is walking away from this playing field emotionally and financially defeated, with a few new battle scars, and let’s be honest, probably starving. So the next time someone invites you to a birthday party, suggest a game of capture the flag instead. Together, we can make a difference.

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