13 May 2024

Are Birthday Cards Disappearing?

We’ve probably all experienced the stab of disappointment that comes with a digital birthday card (fleeting, generic, redolent of a laziness or perhaps a last-minute panic). A perfunctory birthday greeting sent by text is equally unsatisfying – it acknowledges the special day, but absolutely no effort has been made. All these options are, of course, preferable to completely forgetting to send any greeting at all.

A physical card is so much more satisfying than these digital options. For the recipient there is the feeling of anticipation when the envelope drops through the letterbox, often a flash of colour and individuality (especially if the address is handwritten) amongst the boring bills and circulars. Opening the card and appreciating the choice that has been made has its own pleasures, whilst the handwritten message inside, even if it is short and sweet, is evocative of the individual – over the years we come to recognise the handwriting of our friends and relations and that familiarity speaks volumes. We know that the sender has gone to some trouble: they have noted the date, selected the card, handwritten the message, found the address, purchased a stamp and posted the card. All these actions are implicitly understood when the card is opened and add greatly to its value. It is a simple demonstration of how investing time and imagination into a gesture reaps a reward.

Senders also experience benefits from this process. They may very well enjoy the process of choosing a suitable card and penning a personal message. When they pop the card into the postbox they will enjoy a gratifying buzz of self-commendation: they know full well that their gesture will be appreciated and that the small amount of effort required will speak volumes about the sense of attachment and loyalty felt towards the recipient. It is a thoroughly satisfying social transaction for both parties.


So why is this valuable gesture being eroded? The first stumbling block is remembering important birthdays. Traditionally, we all had our own ways of recording these dates: the most organised amongst us invested in a special ‘birthday book’; others annotated the addresses of friends and family with the all-important date; others transferred key birthdays into their diaries at the beginning of each year. These record-keeping practices will be seen as many people as increasingly antiquated. They may make a digital record of all-important birthdays or, more dangerously, come to rely on social networking sites to remind them of upcoming birthdays.

Once you rely entirely on technology as your aide-mémoire, you may be exposing yourself to glitches. Rather like the satnavs that send hapless drivers down blind alleys, social media can give users the illusion that everything is under control, tempting them to forfeit any sense of personal responsibility. Firstly, and most importantly, these sites only send out birthday reminders on the actual day – far too late for a timely birthday card. Also bear in mind that these sites can malfunction: you might have inadvertently turned notifications off; you might have problems with internet connectivity; you might need to update the app; your friend might have hidden their birthday notifications from you. If you depend on the site to notify you of upcoming birthdays you may well find yourself sending belated apologies or having to deal with friends or family who are upset by your apparent negligence. Explaining that you didn’t receive a birthday notification really isn’t an adequate excuse: it highlights the fact that you’re not investing much energy in remembering the all-important date and that you’re relying on technology. It is therefore a much better idea to opt for an analogue means of remembering.


Where do you keep your addresses? Are they stored digitally on your laptop? Are they buried deep in your WhatsApp messages, only retrievable after much digging? Are they kept in an address book? Are they jotted down in a random selection of notebooks/old diaries or preserved on old envelopes?

It is easy to see why an up-to-date digital address book is an attractive and orderly option. But you should countenance the possibility that you might have a computer disaster, a hard disk failure, or an unexpected loss of data. Of course, these contingencies can be dealt with by making back-up copies or storing data in the cloud, but you will have to be meticulous about safeguarding your data.

Many of us go through our entire adult lives with a battered, battle-scarred address book. These wonderful volumes not only serve the function of storing our addresses they are also a testimony to previous jobs, earlier relationships, failed or enduring friendships. They record itinerant friends, whose addresses have multiplied over the years, and bear testament to friends or relations who have stayed put. Scouring these books for an address is a tantalising exercise in nostalgia and (sometimes) amnesia – when we encounter names and addresses of passing acquaintances that have disappeared entirely from our lives.

Some of us will eschew this journey down memory lane as mere indulgence, and will renew address books at regular intervals, re-entering details of friends who have stood the test of time and eradicating extraneous information.

Whatever method you choose to employ, it is always a good idea to find an accessible method for storing addresses (and birth dates). Whether you take the risk of relying on digital reminders, or diligently populate your diary with significant dates to remember, sending a birthday card is always a worthwhile effort. And, of course, when it comes to your own birthday you will no doubt appreciate the reciprocal cards that pile up on your doormat and populate your mantlepiece – a very tangible reminder that you have not been forgotten.


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