I generally loathe being the center of attention, so you can imagine the intense horror and deep emotional distress that I endure when forced to sit awkwardly as friends and family sing “Happy Birthday” to me each and every year. And if someone were to convince a group of random waiters and waitresses to sing it to me, hell, I might excuse myself to the bathroom, jump out the window and live the rest of my life alone in the nearby hills, where nobody will ever sing to me again.
I might be being a little dramatic, but the basic sentiment is shared by many. The internet is, in fact, cluttered with birthday celebrants who just want to know what the fuck to do when surrounded, all eyes on them, by a bunch of people yelling and screaming about them being born on this day some years ago.
Now, we know, at least to some extent, why the experience of being sung “Happy Birthday” to is so damn awkward: Having a bunch of people stare and sing at you is fucking weird. “Most of the time, our minds are on autopilot in social situations, which is nice because we don’t have to think about every minute of action,” explains Ty Tashiro, author of Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome. “But emerging social psychology research suggests that when we become aware that others are observing us, it shuts down our social autopilot. Like a golfer who starts thinking too much about his swing, or a pitcher who becomes neurotic about his mechanics, being observed by others can spark social anxiety about silly minutia: ‘Does my hair look bad? Should I smile, or play it cool? Do these people even like me?’ When people sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to us, it shuts down our social autopilot and shifts us into turbulent deliberation about how we should relate to others.”
For a little more perspective, Tashiro relays to me these quotes from a 2018 research paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, which has some interesting insight on the uncomfortable experience of being watched — and in turn, sung “Happy Birthday” to — from French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre: “In his book Being and Nothingness, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre describes two states of mind: one of experiencing the self as a subject observing others, and the other of perceiving the self as the object of others’ observation. As an example, Sartre describes a situation in which he is peeking through a keyhole and gluing his ear to a door, watching another person ‘in a pure mode of losing himself in the world.’ When Sartre suddenly discovers that a third person is watching him, he becomes the object of the other’s perception, a state that he describes as ‘the recognition of the fact that I am indeed that object which the other is looking at and judging.’”
So yeah, being sung “Happy Birthday” is likely to make you get all weird and self-conscious, which can be a strange experience for the people singing, too. “When you’re a singer, you get very used to people’s eyes being on you,” says Ryan Morgan, of Singers for Hire. “But ‘Happy Birthday’ is a really odd song, because it involves the singer directing everyone’s attention to a third party, and that’s a very, very odd dynamic. It’s very unusual for a singer as well, because normally you’re taking in attention, but you’re taking in attention this time in order to funnel it somewhere else, and very often that’s unwelcomed.”
What might make this even stranger is the fact that “Happy Birthday” is an incredibly difficult song to sing. Morgan calls it “a song which is full of pitfalls. The first thing is the opening pitch: You start off all right, and then all of a sudden you realize, ‘Oh God, there’s going to be a massive interval jump shortly.’ It’s always pitched up too high, and that’s a major problem. It’s kind of sinister, you know?”
So, not only is everyone staring at you, but they’re usually singing horribly while doing it, which obviously adds to the awkwardness.
Then, later in the song, you might come to realize that a whole bunch of the people singing don’t even know your fucking name. “That third line is such a bear trap,” Morgan confirms. “It’s unbelievable. You realize, ‘Oh shit, these people are here because they’ve been told to. They don’t even know who I am.’”
And, of course, being the odd one out — the only person not singing — adds to the weirdness, too. “The other thing is, the person who’s the object of attention doesn’t get to join in,” Morgan reiterates. “They have to sit there silently while people are yelling in their face, and then they have to deal with a naked flame, which is being presented to them.”
All in all, then, being sung “Happy Birthday” to is awkward as hell for many, many reasons. But what the fuck are you supposed to do to make it through the song without imploding into oblivion? “The best thing to do, I think, is to sing along, ‘Happy Birthday to me,’ where you just turn yourself into the social equivalent of a black hole and say, ‘Screw it, I’m going to suck in all of the attention. It’s all about me,’” Morgan says. “Which also gets over the extremely embarrassing part for the recipient when he or she realizes a good third of the people don’t know his or her name.”
If that sounds even worse than just white-knuckling it, Nyle Wolfe, a fellow Singers for Hire performer, says, “My advice to anyone having ‘Happy Birthday’ sung for them is, remember, it’s all going on Facebook, so smile. It’s going to be up there no matter what, and it’s going to be up there even faster if you make the wrong face.”
Wolfe also suggests reminding yourself that, even though it’s weird and awkward, someone that appreciates you took the time to make it all happen. “Someone has arranged it, and actually, most of the pleasure that anyone gets isn’t the person being sung to, but the people who give the singing to the person and the joy that the person would appear to get from that,” he says. So, at least try to not look like you’re considering taking a rocket to another planet.
That said, if you absolutely can’t bear it, Morgan says, “You could just seclude yourself away if you really wanted to and just not go out that day.”
Hey, it’s your birthday, and you can go into hiding if you want to.