• Asking for a Friend: Am I A Bad Friend If I Don’t Send Birthday Cards?

    Dear Olive,

    I am 57 years old and I did not send Christmas cards, birthday cards, etc. I have this anxiety about not writing to people (including my parents). Am I a bad person?

    —Hallmark Hater

     

    Dear Hallmark Hater,

    In all the vividly illuminated layers of Dante’s brimming Inferno, there is as far as I know none reserved for those who failed to put their Christmas cheer in the post.

    Nobody’s judging you from on high (or, uh, down low). No one keeps tabs on off-key singing into awkward voicemail boxes or smashed packages of cookies stuck with Scotch tape or surprise balloon deliveries at lunchtime meetings. There is no running universal tally; Santa and his “naughty” list are fictions meant to scare the children straight and sell the rest of us our soda-pop. You are not bad because you eschew greetings. There’s simply no objective moral value to a birthday card.

    And yet. It would be willfully naïve (or maybe simply Grinchy) to argue that a lack of innate virtue makes these gestures empty. I tend to scoff at etiquette expectations, but I’ve been delighted nine times out of 10 by a note in my mailbox — and I’ve felt the awkward pang of failing to send a thank you when a thoughtful gift-giver followed up to ask if I even got her present. Reaching out because it’s required feels, to some of us, outrageously inauthentic. But not doing it at all doesn’t feel any better. You wouldn’t be writing for advice if ditching tradition felt only good.

    Does a Christmas card determine your soul’s levity, weighed against a feather by Osiris? Will it propel your soul across the River Styx? Will it get you to the Good Place? No.

    There’s nothing wrong with throwing out your stamps and blissfully resigning from remembering birthdays and zip codes. You get to have exactly the kind of social life and correspondence you’d like to. Skipping social niceties doesn’t make you evil or even (in most cases) get you in trouble; it just gets you what it gets you.

    But take it from someone who’s made her share of apologies for neglecting niceties: you’re sending a message either way. It might not be the one you intend if you simply ignore expectations instead of engaging with them.

    There is a reason, after all, that the practice of a birthday greeting settled so deeply into expectation as to command its own guilty gravity — and there’s a distinction, subtle but profound, between dismissing the latter and flushing the figurative baby down the drain with it.

    That doesn’t mean you should double down on your shame over this. Whatever my take on mail may be at any given moment, I remain staunchly anti-shame, either as motive or consequence. But neither does resisting guilt-fueled judgments mean you must dismiss the good that can be spun out of the finest threads of social fabric.

    Consider what might happen if you took this occasionally exhausting tradition as an opportunity, rather than an obligation. If you forget, for a minute, the burden of anxious resentment that might accompany unanswered mail, doesn’t the surprise of friendly handwriting among the bills and junk mailers and catalogues you just can’t get rid of spark a little joy? Isn’t it nice being reminded that someone, somewhere, thought well enough of you to lick an envelope and stick a stamp? Divorced from duty, isn’t it a pleasure to have pals?

    I think so. It’s why, despite rolling my eyes about Miss Manners, I still cringe when lovely notes pile up one-sided in my “meant to do it” pile.

    That’s because the pleasures of having friends — of being a friend — can’t really be divorced from duty, not unless you’re satisfied with superficial, and perhaps not even then. Connection and longevity are sourced from substance. Showing up is not always fun. But showing up is what makes any of the rest of closeness possible.

    Birthday cards, however, are not the only love language.

    Do your friends and family really wish you wrote more often, or do you just think they do? Besides affection from the Hallmark aisle, how do you reach out to them? How would you like to?

    Me, I’m bad at this stuff. I can be scattered and spacey, overcommitted and unrealistic about how long any task might take. I put off errands for weeks. I used to live down the block from a post box and still failed to use it regularly; even with a mailbox 10 feet from my front door, it took me a week to mail a stamped envelope last month. I think of people in inconvenient time zones or while driving or with my hands full at the grocery store, then forget to follow through when my hands and my head are freer. I decline phone calls when I’m hungry — which, to be fair, is probably better for anyone calling me — but get distracted before calling back. Then my phone dies and I lose my to-do list and forget where I keep the stamps.

    I have a friend who’s written me letters to at least three different addresses in the last several years; I’ve responded maybe once. Another friend used to send thoughtful collage cards for mundane occasions; I can’t even remember if I ever responded on paper, or just over text. Yet another friend sends little gifts in the mail every so often — a calendar, a book she loved — and a card I wrote to her a month ago is still on my side table because I lost her address and keep forgetting to ask for it.

    Does this make me a terrible person? Not according to my moral compass. But it doesn’t make me a good friend, either. Carrying guilt along with my stack of unsent envelopes won’t make me a better one — but neither will ignoring the envelopes completely.

    It’s easy for me to get defensive about this. After all, I do think of my loved ones fondly, and often. I may be bad at following up on phone calls, but I show up to visit, give spontaneous gifts, send goofy dog pictures sometimes. Who needs a pile of Christmas cards when texts out of the blue are clearly genuine, not prescribed? Why should I feel bad about having ADHD or pressing deadlines or a phone that can’t keep a charge?

    If I went down that road, I’d spend all of my energy just staving off self-hate. I’ve been there, and it doesn’t work. But having good reasons for blowing off social expectations doesn’t change the consequences, either.

    The trick is being able to distinguish which consequences to attend do. When does showing up for others make you feel secure? When does it stifle?

    You don’t have to feel obligated, just as long as you’re not oblivious. Your choices, after all, are what show people what to expect of you, far more than your intentions do. You get to decide what you want that to be, and then you get to follow through — not for some future moral judgment on your failures, but for the rich and ready satisfaction, in this life, of being exactly the kind of person you mean to be.

    Love,
    Olive

     

    For a little unprofessional advice in these uncertain times, send your questions to yourfriendolive@gmail.com or to our anonymous portal. We want it all: the embarrassing, the baffling, the epistemological. Check back in two weeks from now for another dose of aggressively earnest advice, next time on Asking For a Friend.

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