Don’t get the wrong idea: the circus has not come to town, and nobody has gotten a promotion. The big news is that someone you work with has a birthday today.
If you are an ex-pat employed by a Dutch company, sooner or later you will discover an unusual installation upon your arrival at the office in the morning. Somebody’s desk area – it might even be your own – will be festively decorated with strings of colorful hanging flags suspended from above, while the chair may be festooned with paper streamers and balloons. When the desk’s occupant enters the office, everyone will immediately approach him or her, beaming with smiles, offering a handshake or a hug and warm congratulations. Don’t get the wrong idea: the circus has not come to town, and nobody has gotten a promotion. The big news is that someone you work with has a birthday today. It’s a signal to put them on a pedestal, take time out to honor them, and enjoy some communal coffee and cake together.
Star for a Day
The ritual of celebrating birthdays in the work place is deeply embedded in Dutch business culture. Every department secretary is responsible for keeping an updated list of employee birthdays, and he or she decorates their work station before they arrive on the morning of their special day. If it’s your birthday it’s your moment in the spotlight, and you deserve extra attention and appreciation from your colleagues. The birthday ”star” is also expected to behave according to time honored rules. It is essential that he or she brings a respectable cake to the office, which is shared by all at coffee break at the end of the morning. During this communal moment, songs may be sung, birthday plans revealed and optional gifts presented. If in addition, drinks will be shared at the end of the day either in or out of the office, it is the birthday celebrant who pays the bill.
This charming tradition with its decorations, sweets and songs, resembles a condensed and streamlined kids birthday party. It is a sincere expression of the Dutch view of professional relationships, which strikes a balance between valuing the person as well as the tasks they are responsible for. Although taking time out to celebrate birthdays on a workday, however briefly, does present a distraction and interruption of the workflow, it provides a context for warm and personal social contact. This creates cohesion in the group. Thanks to your birthday, you are at least one day a year seen, heard and respected just for who you are, not for what you do.
Birthdays, Time and Money
In contrast to the cozy Dutch tradition, birthdays in the workplace in the USA are regarded as something that is ok to acknowledge if you have the time, but above all, don’t let it interfere with productivity. Because in the States time is money.
So if you’re lucky you might hear a hearty “Happy Birthday” said out loud by someone within earshot at the office, but don’t expect them to take their eyes off of their computer screen as they convey their best wishes to you. Or they might not waste time with that and just send you an email from across the room. If it’s a significant birthday, you might be dutifully joined by some colleagues for a drink after work – and lucky you, they will pay the bill!
Not all companies are as unfriendly in their view of birthdays. The ROI of employee appreciation is not overlooked, and so many employers will take the route of presenting a plant or a gift card to show they care, or post birthday greetings on the company intranet.
Birthday Team Building
Other U.S. companies will seize the opportunity for team building activities, by bundling all birthdays into once a month lunchtime celebrations. Sometimes it will be a pot-luck affair, which requires everyone to volunteer to contribute something to the meal. Employees can hone their leadership skills by rotating the role of coordinator of the event. Once the large buffet meal is laid out, those who have a birthday that month get the privilege of being first in line to pile the food onto their plates.
Unlike the Netherlands, bringing your own cake to the office on your birthday would be considered somewhat pathetic. Either someone else is thoughtful enough to bring it in your honor, or it just doesn’t happen. This can be stressful because it becomes a litmus test of one’s popularity at the office. People are left wondering if anyone will remember that it is their birthday, or if anyone in the office likes them enough to care about it. If a colleague does supply a birthday cake, there is generally no special moment of togetherness to share it. The cake is sliced without any fanfare, and left on a plate in a back room, where employees are free to help themselves to a piece throughout the day.
In Part II of Dutch vs. American Birthdays in the Workplace, we will cover some of the polarizing issues related to this topic in the USA. We’ll also take a deeper look at how celebrating birthdays reflects the group vs. individual preferences of both cultures.
Lisa has both American and Dutch nationality and has lived in Paris, Moscow and Basel. After a successful career in dance and theatre, she shifted direction to the corporate world, leading and co-leading communication training programs for international business executives in The Netherlands, USA, Russia and Thailand. She is also an executive coach and trainings actor. Her areas of expertise are Cross-Cultural Communication and Leadership and American culture.
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