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The Pain and Torture of Singing Happy Birthday in an Office

Photo: Kristin Klein via Flickr / CC By 2.0

It is someone’s birthday today, because it is always someone’s birthday. You can hear the sound of it approaching. Haaaa— that first boom of the happy birthday song, screeching tires-first out of someone’s mouth before they’ve had the chance to modulate the volume, before the ensuing chorus chips on in; that sound can last forever: Haaaa—, rising and falling, expectant, an invitation, you know already that the eyes above the noise are pleading, and the others only come in with the —ppy, and that sound can go on forever. Scientists looking to crack the code of time travel need only look at the slowness of time surrounding a single person singing the first brave note of Happy Birthday in a room full of people.


Consider: have you, ever, sung the Happy Birthday song all the way through? Or did you start on —ppy because somebody started it off for you? It takes a certain pathological type of person to start the Happy Birthday song off, and it is not you. And anyway, now, for the fourth time in ten days, it is someone in the office’s birthday.

Birthdays when you were a child were good. When you were five, perhaps, your birthday was the best day of your life: so many presents they eclipsed you, a pile of discarded wrapping paper the height of your thighs, an entire day dedicated just to you. The McDonald’s parties of your youth. The cake and jam and jelly. At 11, somehow, the tone of them changed: birthdays staggered from less a celebration of you and your achievements into a loaded social ceremony, a constant question of whether the cool kids from your school would turn up to your party, or whether you would be condemned here, in purgatory, playing an hour of laserquest with the exact six same boys you hang out with every break and lunchtime.

The birthdays of your adolescence began months before they happened: please, you would beg your mother, please please please can I have an iPad for my birthday. She would acquiesce: yes, she said, you can have the iPad, but you’re not getting any other presents, or a meal, and you can’t have it until the actual day of your birthday. You unwrapped it drearily at 7AM on the dot. Thanks, you said; thank you, mum. On your 18th she sobbed and took photos of you from every awkward angle of your long lank body. "It was only yesterday," she would cry, "when I could hold you in my hand!" At 21, distant uncles gave you a £10 note in an envelope and slapped you on the shoulder. "You’re a grown up, now!" they would say, cheerfully, as if they had not just ushered you into a dark hell. And now you are 26, and it’s your birthday on Tuesday, and you’re working an eight-hour day, and you can see all your colleagues passing a card around to sign it – you see it, glimmering, palmed between desks, not-even-subtle conversations where someone gets up, holding it loose inside a magazine, puts it on another table and says this: "Oh, yeah, did I… tell you about, that, thing?" – it is your birthday and this is the only magic your colleagues can muster.


Today it is Ryan from Accounts’ birthday, and you have to sing the ancient song to him.

WATCH: How a Top Sushi Chef Celebrates His Birthday

This happens in the kitchen, because it always happens in the kitchen. You work in an office but the only shared area is the kitchen. When they ushered you into the working world they promised you beanbag chairs and softly-furnished meeting rooms. Glowing neon pinned to white walls beneath which you could recline and think. Instead, the only shared area is a two-sided room with a sink, a shared plinth or table scattered with sugar granules and a complicated and ignored system of recycling bins. An email has gone around the entire office asking you to gather in the kitchen. You are here, in the corner, the wet smell of used teabags around you, the pools of boiling water. Everyone knows this ceremony now. They know not to bother with the smalltalk. That all of this will be over soon. Ryan will be here, soon, for his birthday.

Every office birthday has a Birthday Leader. This is additional work delegated to mid-level management, and it shows. Please consider this: every birthday card you have ever received from the people in your office is the result of at least two conversations your manager had to have with the person who looks after petty cash. This cost had to be argued for and justified. Someone wrote down how much this card costs. The card cost £1.99, but nobody paid for it. This card – the card either has a fun picture of an animal on the front, or an extended joke about how old you are, or, in cases of extreme humour, the message "Sorry You’re Leaving!" on the front – this card is a business expense that has already been written off. Open it up. It has been signed by everyone you work with in either blue or black biro.


There is no worse writer’s block in the world than being faced with writing a "happy birthday!" message for someone you barely know. Simplify it. There are only three birthday messages allowed: if you know the person well, you can recount a single in-joke the two of you share or a nickname you might have for them. This is fun. Another alternative is to try to kick-start some written banter with the receiver of the card, in an attempt to pull the starter cord on a real-world friendship ("Wow! Can’t believe you’re 90 years old!"). This will not work. And then, often when you can barely form the shapes of their face in your mind’s eye, you are stuck writing something anodyne and generally positive – "Have a good one, mate!" – but also ensuring nobody else has already written it ahead of you. Those are the three birthday card messages allowed. Do not deviate from them. Pass the card along quickly to the next available well-wisher.


The best birthday cake is the Colin the Caterpillar cake – there will be no arguing about this. Colin the Caterpillar is better than anything on Bake Off. In the old days, you feel, the office cook would prepare a lovingly handmade cake, which would be sliced up and offered around. We do not live in the past any more. Colin the Caterpillar is a superior cake because, when sliced, he comes with a clear hierarchy: the solid chocolate face of Colin is offered to the Birthday Haver, a sacrifice to the gods; the less solid but still robust arse of Colin is offered to the Birthday Leader. Both treats now gone, the interstitial slices of his crumbling torso are offered to you, the scum. "This knife," someone will say, holding up a blunt knife from the cutlery drawer. "We really should get a better knife." Nobody will ever buy a knife. I worked in an office once where we only had plastic cutlery, and at least three knives shattered per cake-cutting, shearing into the corpse like spears thrown into an antelope. Nobody ever bought a knife. There are not enough plates to go around so the still-warm body is handed to you on a torn kitchen napkin. Tear up the remaining crumbs with your hands.

Sometimes you will get a small cake from the Co-Op instead, and it is not as good.

This horrible charade is coming to an end now. You sang the Happy Birthday song, all of you in a horrible harmony, high and low notes clattering into one another, loud and quiet, a morbid drone. Look around at your colleagues while they sing it. Who, among them, do you really know? You’ve worked here for a couple of years now. Surely you should know more people. On your birthday, you flick through your own card. Entire regions of it are signed by people whose names you don’t know. Are… you so unpopular here they have to get ringers in to sign your card? Do… do people sign your birthday card with the same sigh of resignation as when you sign theirs? Sometimes the Birthday Haver is invited to make a speech, and they never do, because who makes speeches. They stand in front of everyone, cheeks pink with the exertion of singing out loud in public. "Thank you," they say, quietly. "I’m, err, having a couple of drinks after work." Nobody says anything. "You don’t have to come!" they say, and you decide right there you are going to come. And it’s just you, isn’t it, in your work shirt and your work trousers, silently sipping a Guinness with The Friends Of Your Colleague Who They Met At University Who Are All Dressed Smart-Casually And Are Relaxed. "So how do you know Ryan?" they say, loudly, in the lulls in conversation. I work with him, you say. These tentative bonds that keep us hopelessly anchored together. Tell them you have to leave, soon, after this next pint. Ryan will understand. And you slink home, just like you slinked to your desk after the birthday song, knowing somehow you are less popular now than you ever were before. Still another half an hour of the working day to go. They never told you birthdays would be like this. It is less than two days until you have to sing this again. Then again, two more days after that. One day it will happen twice. And then again, and again, over and over, as we accelerate ever faster towards death.