Surprise Party Guest of Honor Etiquette

by admin on April 22, 2013

I’m hoping for an objective, third party opinion regarding surprise parties. My aunt and I are trying to figure out which one of us owes the other an apology.

If you hear about a surprise party being thrown in your honor ahead of time, are you under any etiquette obligation to attend? If you walk into a surprise party, are you obligated to stay?

If you know the “guest of honor” absolutely hates parties, and has already turned down people who have asked if they can host a party for her, is it considered rude to throw a surprise party for that person? 0419-13

The first question to be asked of oneself is, “Who is being served by my possible actions?”   If you know the guest of honor loathes parties and particularly a surprise party, who is really being served by hosting in defiance of that preference?   The party host/ess, of course.   There could any number of reasons why a party host would carry forth with party plans he/she knows without a shadow of a doubt the guest of honor would not appreciate.    Selfish entitlement of their own preferences, a desire to have control over the GOH (surprise parties do have the effect of catching someone off-guard), a desire to showcase his/her hospitality skills/cooking.

Since you note that the birthday guest of honor is female, there may be an engrained perception that when women say, “No”, they really mean, “Yes”, and that her protestations are merely a show to convince others that while she may want a party, she doesn’t want to appear eager to be the center of attention.  I’m not into playing those kinds of speculation games and take people at their word so “no” means “no”.

If you knew ahead of time that a surprise party was planned, you could feign ignorance of the plans and simply avoid being anywhere near the scheduled party or anyone’s attempt to surprise you.   A sudden business trip would be a handy excuse.  After all, you are not supposed to know about this party and can, in freedom, make alternative plans as if you had a life and lived it accordingly.

But if you are surprised and happen to walk right into the midst of a party in your honor, I’m afraid you need to suck it up and be gracious to the guests.   The host/ess may be a conniving, selfish person who weaseled you into attending a party you had repeatedly stated you did not want but the other guests may not know that.   You do not want to create an awkward scene which communicates guilt to the other guests who may believe they are there under good pretenses and intentions.   You don’t have to party til the wee hours of morning but make your rounds to all the guests, thank them for the good wishes and being there, eat a slice of cake and graciously make your departure.   And then never, ever trust the party host/ess ever again to have any regard for your personal preferences.

{ 79 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah April 22, 2013 at 8:21 am

I really want to know who planned the party and who was surprised… and if the person being surprised found out ahead of time and pulled a vanishing act, or left from the party. I’m thinking the OP was the one being surprised, but I’d love confirmation.

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Lo April 22, 2013 at 8:23 am

Having been birthday hijacked by folks who wanted an excuse to celebrate more than they cared about the fact that I don’t celebrate my birthday, I have no sympathy for those who use surprise parties to guilt people into having a party in their honour.

My own parents once had me come over for what I thought was going to be a low key dinner on my birthday, knowing I didn’t want any birthday fuss, then made a huge deal of running out to purchase a cake last minute from a bakery (while I was there, protesting), getting offended that I wasn’t thrilled, getting offended that I wouldn’t eat any, and then at some point I realized that this had nothing to do with me and everything to do with them wanting an excuse to eat cake. I left soon afterwards.

If you hear about a surprise party being thrown in your honor ahead of time and you don’t want it, speak up and stop it. It’s not rude. Offer to spend time with your friends instead, just not as a birthday party.

If you walk into a surprise party, are you obligated to stay? Well, yes, you’re obligated to endure it to save face in the same way you’re obligated to praise and express gratitude for bad gift. It would be rude to walk out of a party thrown in your honour, even if you felt it was a slap in the face to your wishes. But I don’t think it would be rude to politely pull the host aside afterwards and tell them that if they do such a thing again the friendship is over.

It’s okay not to want a surprise party. If you don’t want one and your friends or family throw one, they’re clearly in the wrong.

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WildIrishRose April 22, 2013 at 8:27 am

Totally with you, Admin. I threw exactly one surprise party for my husband, and he was very gracious about it, but he informed me afterward that he doesn’t like surprises and asked me kindly not to do it again. So I never did it again. I love parties, and I love surprise parties, but I am astute enough to realize and respect that not everyone is like me. And throwing a party for someone that you KNOW doesn’t want one is just a passive-aggressive way to exert control over that someone. You need to know your audience!

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jch April 22, 2013 at 8:42 am

I don’t think there’s any excuse for throwing a surprise party for someone who has clearly stated that they don’t want one. Anyone who really doesn’t like being the center of attention will be horrified when put in that position, and understandably angry if a blatant “No!” is ignored.

While I agree with admin that once there, one needs to at least put on a brave face, I disagree with the avoidance issue, if the “surprisee” finds out about the party. Presumably, guests will be family and friends, and they have bought gifts, arranged for child care, planned things so they could be there to wish you well. It’s not their fault that the hostess ignored your wishes, and I would personally not have the heart to not show up (much as surprises like that make me cringe). At that point in the situation, it would be a selfish decision to not show, IMO. I think it’s another suck it up and deal with it issue. Imagine being the guest of such a party, knowing that the GOH just didn’t show up…and for the GOH to plead ignorance is just dishonest. It would stink, and the GOH would be justifiably angry, but it’s not okay to have the innocent, well-intentioned guests suffer for the hostess’s thoughtlessness.

Hope you are able to work it all out! :)

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ferretrick April 22, 2013 at 8:43 am

Yes, it’s rude and presumptuous for someone to host a surprise party when they absolutely, positively know the GOH doesn’t want it-that reveals that the party actually has nothing to do with actually showing care for the GOH. It’s the hostess satisfying their own desires to show off, or control the GOH, or whatever.

I slightly disagree with the admin on are you obligated to attend if you know it’s happening against your wishes. I think it depends partly on when you find out. If you find out early enough to not inconvience people who have already made plans to be there (like before invitations have been mailed or very shortly afterwords), I think you can put your foot down and tell the host that you will not attend the party, so they’d best cancel it. If it’s closer to the event, I agree you aren’t OBLIGATED, but at that point it’s still probably the nicer, less dramatic option to go, pretend to be surprised, and act gracious to the innocent guests who are, after all, only trying to be nice to you.

If you actually walk into the party unawares, you are ABSOLUTELY required to put on your best face, act gracious, thank everyone for coming, and pretend you are having a good time. All the innocent guests who have made time in their lives to try to do something special for you deserve your sincere gratitude, even if it didn’t come in the form you would have preferred.

And the letter doesn’t specify, but I’m inferring from context that this party has already happened, that LW was the GOH, and aunt the selfish host who had a party against their wishes. If so, then your aunt owes you the apology. However, if you did walk into the party unawares, and then left, YOU owe an apology not to your aunt, but to all the party guests who were only trying to do something nice for you. A BIG apology.

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PM April 22, 2013 at 9:10 am

This reminds me of a Dear Abby letter that appeared on 4-16-13.

http://www.uexpress.com/dearabby/?uc_full_date=20130416

The LW’s coworker knows that she doesn’t like being celebrated on her birthday, and yet used his access to HR records at work to get her birthdate and then throws her celebrations even though she prefers to be left alone. He calls her rude for not letting him celebrate her birthday the way he chooses.

People who do this actually care very little for the birthday person. Throwing the party is about them getting the excitement of a social gathering, getting a special dessert, looking magnanimous and generous, etc. While I think it would be nice to make a token appearance if you get “stuck” at a surprise party, then leave as soon as possible, I don’t think you’re under any obligation to protect the feelings of the clods who ignore your feelings. If you find out about the party ahead of time, a sudden out of town trip is a good idea. Playing “nice” with people like this only emboldens them to push their agenda further. The next year the party will be bigger and louder because “You enjoyed it so much last year!”

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Mae April 22, 2013 at 9:24 am

The reviled surprise party. I *hate* those. Anyone who throws them against the supposed GoH wishes it a loathsome person.

If the aunt throwed the LW a surprise party against her wishes, then the aunt owes the LW an apology. No one should be coerced or compelled to attend a surprise party that they have stated they do not want. If LW just turned around and left a surprise party, I would say she owes the other guests an apology, not the aunt. If doesn’t have to be a long, complicated apology; just a simple thanks for wanting to celebrate my birthday, I was caught unaware and my manners temporarily left me.

I agree that people who throw surprise parties against the wishes of the GoH are simply wanting attention for themselves and I would distance myself from anyone who would do that to me.

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CaffeineKatie April 22, 2013 at 9:30 am

I agree with the “polite face” comments if you walk into a surprise party. However, in my experience as the victim of this, anyone who would plan a surprise party KNOWING the guest of honor hates surprises doesn’t care about embarassing and inconveniencing the GOH, so the GOH has no obligation to attend. In my case, it was more about control issues than it was about celebration, so I didn’t feel like I was needed except as a prop for the hostess’ display.

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Margo April 22, 2013 at 9:46 am

I agree that throwing a surprise party for someone who has clearly said they don’t like surprise parties / don’t want one is very rude.

If you don’t know in advance, turn up, and are surprised then I think the gracious thing to do is to make the best of it for the sake of the guests who innocently showed up in your honour. I also think it is then fine to take the host to one side, make it clear to them how very unhappy you are and reiterate that you do not, under any circumstances, want this to happen again.

if you find out ahead of time, then is you find out well ahead of time I don;t think it is rude to tell the hosts that you know, and don’t want the party, and won’t attend., if there is enough time from the m to cancel before guests have been invited or are likely to have made travel plans etc.

I also tend to the view that anyone who knows you well enough to be throwing you are party ought really to know you well enough to know whether or not you’re likely to hate it. If you don’t know the honoree well enough to be sure, you should probably think twice about organising the party, at least until you’ve had the chance to seek advice from someone who knows them better.

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wonderfullyanonymous April 22, 2013 at 9:48 am

My friends and family know that I do not like being the center of attention, and have been forewarned that if they do anything that goes beyond those wishes of keeping it lowkey I will walk out.

That being said, not one person should be surprised if birthday person walks out. If the person who set up this party went against the birthday persons wishes they should be left alone to explain why the “lucky” person left.

Why should the birthday person have to suffer while the party planner gets to gloat.

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cmw April 22, 2013 at 9:52 am

I agree with Admin except for one one thing. I have had increasing anxiety attacks for several years, but they’re unpredictable. Sometimes I’ll be fine in a situation, other times I’ll be trying to run for the door. Most of my very close friends know about this, but casual acquantiances don’t necessarily. Recently at a party I was at (not a host, but staying at the house and without a car) I had to go hide in a bedroom because of my anxiety levels, I simply was not comfortable around other people.

If the GOH has an actual physiological response like this to surprises or large crowds of people and is surprised with a party, I don’t think she is under any obligation to “save face”, I think she should do whatever it is she needs to do to maintain her own health and well-being. If that means immediately bailing on the party and then reaching out to all the confused guests later to apologize for her behavior then so be it.

If you find out ahead of time simply call the host and tell them that you must have missed your invitation in the mail and that you’ll be sadly unable to attend that day due to other plans. And if they get offended that it was supposed to be a secret or a surprise, tell them that in that case under no circumstances will you show up because you don’t appreciate surprises. Depending on how you found out, you may want to call some other friends to make plans for that day to make sure your day won’t be hijacked.

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Magicdomino April 22, 2013 at 9:59 am

One of the risks of hosting a surprise party is that the guest of honor may make other plans. Usually other people help “herd” the guest of honor to the location, but that may prove difficult if at the last minute the guest of honor chooses to spend her birthday in Cancun.

I hate surprises, so if some deluded soul was going to hold a surprise party for me, I’d rather know ahead of time, so that I can either prepare myself or run to Mexico, depending on the situation. If surprised, I agree with Admin that one should smile politely, greet the guests, then plead a headache or other minor illness and leave as soon as possible. Don’t make a scene, but you don’t have to stay there and be miserable either.

I also agree with PM that forcing a party on someone is about the party-giver, not the guest of honor. There are plenty of reasons to throw a party; just check a list of obscure holidays if you need inspiration. You don’t need a victim.

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Cat April 22, 2013 at 10:04 am

This reminds me of a school where the party planners always ignored the wishes of the one having the birthday and did what they wanted.
I have bad acid reflux and they planned a surprise party which had nothing but highly seasoned ethnic food that I could not eat. ( I wasn’t even a member of that ethnic group-nor were they.) I took a couple of bites and explained that I could not eat highly seasoned food without becoming very ill. Since everyone knew this, no-one seemed offended.
Another lady hated ice-cream cake. I told the party planners this before hand. They liked ice-cream cake so that was what they had. They thought her rude because she refused to eat it.
I would have other plans and would not have gone to a surprise party that I had said I did not want. Let the hostess explain it to the guests. If I walked in on one, I would stay a half-hour and then have another appointment that I could, regretably, not break and leave.
I dislike the notion that I have to “suck it up” when someone decides to be rude to me. I don’t even like the term “suck it up”. It does not give me license to be equally rude back. It does give me control over my own life and the right not to allow someone else to rule me. There’s a difference between lawful authority and bullies.

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Piperpur April 22, 2013 at 10:20 am

I had a friend who not only hated surprises(he had big anxiety problems) but was also plagued by fear of abandonment. His birthday was a big deal to him, and so as his friend that made it a big deal to me. On his 30th birthday(yes, these were grown adults not teenagers) he invited me to a get together at his favorite restaurant which he told me was arranged by an old “friend of the family” I had never met. I was then contacted by the hostess to tell me the “real plan”. She thought it would be “great fun” to plan the restaurant party on his birthday, invite 15 -20 people and have nobody show up. The plan was to then have a big surprise party 3 days later. When I gently suggested that I thought he would be really unhappy with that, she told me she knew that but he really needed to loosen up and besides it would be funny. At that, I got off the phone and called him immediately. He went along with the plan and didn’t let on he knew to keep peace in his social circle. The party was huge, well planned and was a blast. My friend told me afterwards that it was a great experience because he was prepared, but that if he had not known what was going on with the dinner he didn’t know if he would have been alive for the party, and that he could not have made it through the party unprepared. I can’t imagine having friend a who would so totally disregard my feelings.

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Lynda April 22, 2013 at 10:30 am

It seems like an extremely passive-aggressive move on the “host’s” part to give a surprise party when they know full well that the prospective guest of honor is against it. It seems like only a real control freak would do this to someone.

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CaffeineKatie April 22, 2013 at 10:35 am

I was discussing this with a friend, “Ann”. She loves parties, knows I hate them, and was telling me the usual line of “you need to learn to cope with/enjoy surprise parties–it’s for your own good” We have a mutual friend, “Barb”, who LOVES to throw surprise parties and has repeatedly tried to throw one for me–she also thinks I “need to learn to cope”.

So I posed this to Ann–Barb is a lovely woman but absolutely incapable of sitting quietly for any length of time. She fidgets, jabbers, gets up and down, hunts in her purse for nothing and everything–waiting for a plane/restaurant seat/movie to start is a nightmare for her and for those with her. I asked Ann–”what if I asked Barb out to dinner, and instead drove her out to a deserted parking lot, locked the car doors, and ignored her, so she could “learn to cope” with delays. Ann’s response? “ohhhhh”

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Anonymous April 22, 2013 at 10:37 am

I’m not sure that the guests/co-planners are necessarily “innocent bystanders,” because anyone who’d be invited to a birthday party for someone would surely be a friend or a family member of that person, right? So, wouldn’t it stand to reason that they’d have some idea of the birthday person’s likes and dislikes? In that case, I don’t think the guests would be rude to say to the main party planner, “Actually, I don’t think Sam’s going to like this. A low-key picnic in the park, with advance notice, would probably be a better option.” The other thing with surprise parties is, even the “innocent guests” are complicit in pulling it off, because they have to keep the secret, and then hide in the dark/behind furniture/whatever, until the birthday person arrives, and then jump out and yell “Surprise!” I’m not saying that everyone participating in this ritual would necessarily know that the birthday person doesn’t like surprises (because, for larger parties, some of the guests might just be work friends or whatever), but surely there’d be enough people there who would know, and if they were good friends, then surely they’d refuse to participate, and tell the main party planner exactly why, thereby effectively putting the kibosh on the whole thing. After all, you can’t throw a surprise party if other people aren’t willing to be complicit with the plan, so I’d imagine that a lot of these situations end up resolving themselves. The only reason why we don’t hear about it is because people generally don’t find out about unwanted surprise parties that didn’t happen, and even if they do, they don’t write to Dear Abby or to Jeanne about it, because nobody writes to an advice column when everything’s okay.

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Ergala April 22, 2013 at 10:39 am

Had this happen once, and I absolutely DID walk out. My birthday is not a happy day for me and I have no real happy memories associated with it. I tell people this whenever they ask me about my birthday. I wake up, take some calls from family who wish me a happy birthday and then I get on with my day. My husband was horrified by this. But then as the years have gone on he sees why I don’t celebrate it. Something bad happens every year around that time, a large part of my family (including parents) forget the actual day of my birthday so the call may come 3 days before, or 6 days after my birthday. My grandfather and I shared the same birthday and he died suddenly when I was 18. I prefer to not celebrate it. When someone ignored my husband when he said DO NOT throw her a surprise party he warned me about it. I talked to the person, thought it was all taken care of. Nope….got together and SURPRISE….I absolutely did walk out.

I refuse to be held hostage because the hostess/host decided to ignore my wishes. This isn’t about something minor….it’s my freaking birthday for pete’s sake! I have every single right to dictate if I don’t want a party and I absolutely shouldn’t have to “suck it up” to make someone happy who ignored me saying “do not throw me a party.”. I may not celebrate it but it IS my day and I will celebrate it how I wish.

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pso April 22, 2013 at 10:46 am

I strongly disagree about someone who turns around and walks out of a surprise party owing an apology to the guests. If staying would make you miserable, I think you have a responsibility to the guests to leave, so that you don’t make them compound the wrong they have inadvertently done to you by being there in the first place. The surprise party victim should contact them afterwards with an explanation (“I’m not comfortable at parties”) and an expression of a wish to see them soon in better circumstances (“I would love to have you over to dinner/meet at the park/(whatever seems like a mutually enjoyed activity)”), but not an apology. Etiquette isn’t about being a doormat, and real friends would rather feel awkward for a moment about their mistake than impose further suffering.

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Joni April 22, 2013 at 10:49 am

There are lots of people for whom I could see myself throwing a surprise party, friends and family etc., but I don’t know if they would like one or not. And sidling up alongside someone and inquiring, “Hey, how do you feel about surprise parties?” would sort of ruin the surprise.

I’m jealous of all those of you who are having parties thrown in your honor, surprise or otherwise. I haven’t had a party thrown *for* me since I was nine years old. I keep waiting for my husband to throw me a party – he whiffed my 30th birthday, maybe for my 40th? I can think of few things I would enjoy more.

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JGM1764 April 22, 2013 at 11:02 am

I have attended only maybe 3 or 4 surprise parties in the past, and each time I nervously held my breath, hoping the GoH would be pleased. Luckily in all occasions, they were (or if they weren’t, they were far too gracious to say so) but I would never EVER want one for myself. My husband knows that should he get wind of anyone planning one for me that he should tell me.

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Annie April 22, 2013 at 11:10 am

I had a very unwelcome surprise party thrown for me by a new friend who didn’t know me well. It caused me severe anxiety. I tried to behave graciously but didn’t succeed as well as I would have liked. I wrote very sincere thank-you notes to all the guests the next day, because I know it was well-meant.

The person who threw the party apologized to me and we are now very good friends. I can see how in many instances, throwing an unwelcome party is manipulative and self-serving. But sometimes, very kind people do just slip up.

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Sansa April 22, 2013 at 11:14 am

I don’t like suprise parties. I don’t like being the center of attention. I don’t like having a big fuss made over/about me.

I have co-worker who tried a surprise party on me at work. I didn’t know about it but when the whole office suddenly got very quiet and then someone I rarely work with or have breaks with asks me to go on break with them and they would “buy me a Coke”, I knew something was up. I refused to go to the break room. Then the party planner came out, acted all offended and begged me to come in because “everyone is waiting to sing to you”. I said, no thank you, I TOLD you that I do not like this type of thing and I am absolutely not going in so everyone else can have a good time and eat cake. If you all want to eat cake, you can certainly do so but you can do it without me.

If you are told that the potentional guest of honor does not like surprise parties, don’t plan one anyway. No one should have to “suck it up” because someone else wants to be a control freak arsehole, especially on their birthday.

If Aunt planned the surprise party against OP’s wishes, she should apologize. OP should not have to suffer threw a party she explicitly said she did not want just to “save face”. Let Aunt explain to the attendees why OP walked out. But considering Aunt did something she knew OP didn’t want, she would probably just lie.

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Stacey Frith-Smith April 22, 2013 at 11:23 am

With most parties there is a list of those who have “standing” to host it. An acquaintance or coworker shouldn’t be tasked with celebrating your birthday, anniversary, engagement or graduation. Some of the experiences shared in the comments section made it seem as if any gaggle of humanity with access to a bakery and a desire for fun would do when it comes to celebrations from the perspective of aggressive hosts. So, yes. Walk out. If they don’t know you well enough to host the event or if they are unkind enough to do so in a way that is willfully and grossly inconsiderate- leave. I wouldn’t say that about any other party but you are literally a hostage to etiquette in the face of such a scenario. Don’t acquiesce. (Although if you greet everyone and eat a slice of cake before exiting- and can manage to do so, well done.) People should not be able to use the hammer of etiquette as a cover for abuse.

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Anonymous April 22, 2013 at 11:35 am

@Joni–There are ways to find out if someone is in the “pro” or “con” camp as far as surprise parties go, but it takes a bit of detective work. First of all, you don’t bring up the issue around the person’s birthday, because that’d be a dead giveaway. In fact, you don’t even have to ask directly–you can say something during the course of normal conversation like, “I know this woman who didn’t like surprise parties, but her aunt threw her one anyway, even though she knew that, and she walked out, and now this woman and her aunt are fighting. What do you think of that?” Technically, it’s true, because we all virtually “know” the OP through E-Hell. So, if you do your homework, you can definitely find out if your friend likes surprise parties or not, and govern yourself accordingly. As I said, most people who are friends or family members of the birthday person, will have had similar conversations with him or her beforehand, so I don’t think it’s possible for an unwitting and unwilling “guest of honour” to walk into an unwanted surprise party, where NOBODY (or even nobody but the main party planner) knows that the gesture is unwanted. In that case, I don’t think walking out would be rude. You don’t even have to make a huge scene; you could just say, “Actually, I planned on X today; so sorry, but Jane is waiting for me at Y.” Then, people will either pick up the fact that you’re not thrilled, or if they don’t, you can inform them privately of your feelings after the fact.

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A April 22, 2013 at 11:36 am

My husband and I are oposites on the surprise party idea. I love them and he loathes them! We’ve been together ten years and he’s thrown me two surprise birthday parties. I often think that I would love to throw him a really good surprise party, but he is so picky about things it would just be stress all-around. Like a previous poster mentioned: know your audience!

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Ellen April 22, 2013 at 11:49 am

I think there is a big difference between potential hosts like Annie’s, who throw a surprise party not knowing whether or not it will be well-received, and like the OP’s situation, where the host knew that the GOH would not enjoy it.

If you are not sure whether someone would enjoy the surprise, it is a bad idea, but I don’t think it is flat-out rude and hurful as when the host does know the GOH’s feelings.

Also, in respect of the comment above from JCH, that it would be rude to not show up – I would assume that the host has to “lure” the GOH to the party with some kind of appointment/invitation (unless they have broken into GOH’s house). By refusing the appointment, GOH has put the host on notice that they will not be coming – it is then the host’s obligation to inform the guests, and their responsibility/rudeness if the guests are inconvenienced. I agree if the GOH accepts the invite to a “quiet dinner” or “movie night” or whatever cover story the host uses, and then is a no-show, that would be rude.

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gramma dishes April 22, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Piperpur ~~ Good grief! Not only would her ‘secret’ plan not be in the least bit funny, I think it would have been downright cruel. Just horrifyingly mean!!

I have no anxiety issues nor feelings of abandonment, but even I would have been so incredibly hurt to have a celebratory birthday party “in my honor” that no one attended.

Thank goodness your friend had you!! The results might have been really ugly otherwise.

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MichelleP April 22, 2013 at 12:34 pm

I agree with Admin. Although I love being surprised and would be tickled to have a party thrown in my honor, I understand those who don’t and would respect that. Even someone who has anxiey should act gracious towards those who mean well, the guests. I’m not opening up a can of worms intentionally here, but anyone who can’t handle socializing with family and friends needs to get therapy. (Yes, I have emotional issues and have been in counseling for them so I understand.)

I have a similar problem: my sister hates surprises but loves to be the center of attention. She doesn’t like anyone else to be surprised. Several times we have planned to go visit our mother and stepfather. (We live hours away from each other and them.) We talked to our stepdad and arranged for us to surprise our mother with a visit with us and our children. Our mother would love to be surprised by that. Every time my sister called my mother and ended up telling her. I just don’t make plans to do it anymore. She tells everyone everything: what plans we have for birthdays, the presents I and our children are getting from her and everyone else, on and on.

What do I do?

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cleosia April 22, 2013 at 12:46 pm

A woman I worked with once told me the story of her cousin-in-law who decided to throw her husband a surprise birthday party. Comes the day of the party and he walks in and they turn on the light and yell, “Surprise!” He was very gracious to the guests but took his wife and the side and said if she ever did it again, he would shoot her. He was a cop. You don’t jump out of the dark and yell surprise at a cop.

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Anonymous April 22, 2013 at 1:05 pm

A–Does your husband hate all kinds of parties, or just surprise parties? If he just doesn’t like being surprised, why don’t you compromise and just throw him a really good party that isn’t a surprise? I don’t see the “surprise” element as any different than, say, if the party planner’s favourite colour is purple, and the birthday person’s favourite colour is red, and the planner’s favourite cake is chocolate, but the birthday person prefers vanilla, and your favourite game is charades, but the birthday person would rather play Dance, Dance, Revolution. In that case, the party planner would throw a non-surprise party with vanilla cake, red balloons, and a DDR tournament, even if he or she would prefer a surprise party with purple décor, chocolate cake, and charades. Then, when the tables are turned, and it’s the party planner’s birthday, then his or her friends would throw a surprise/purple/chocolate/charades party for that person.

Ellen–Good point. Usually, with surprise parties, one person is given the job of making sure the guest of honour makes it to the party, usually through some kind of subterfuge. I had some friends in high school throw a surprise party for another friend, and they told her that they were going to have brass quintet practice, and then go to a movie together. This was plausible, because all of the people in the (student-formed) quintet were friends, and therefore, it’d be reasonable for all of them to be at the party (which was for the French horn player, IIRC), just like it’d be reasonable for all of them to attend quintet practice. Anyway, they knew that she’d enjoy a surprise party, and they tacked the “movie” part onto their cover story so she’d know she was going to be “in public,” and therefore wouldn’t arrive for “quintet practice” in sweats, like she might do normally. It turned out that the subterfuge worked, and she was thoroughly surprised, and a good time was had by all. However, with other outings, like “quiet evening” or “movie night,” that just happen to be on someone’s birthday, they’re sort of pointedly “birthday” activities, unlike quintet practice, which was a regular thing, so it’d be easy for the potential GOH to say, “Sorry, I already have plans,” if he or she already knows what’s happening, by accident. However, I still think it’s kind of mean to do that to someone who doesn’t like surprise parties (especially if you know that), and doesn’t know what’s going on, ESPECIALLY if the “cover story” outing is something that the GOH would enjoy, and they think you’re respecting their feelings, but you’re really doing the exact opposite, and LYING about it. Oh, and as for “breaking into someone’s house,” that’s not the only way to pull off a surprise party without a “subterfuge outing.” One common way to do it is if the person’s spouse or another family member puts everything together when they know the GOH is going to be away from home; for example, at work or school. In that case, there’s really no way out, because the person would be walking into his or her own home, not knowing what’s about to happen, and they can’t really “leave the party and go home,” because the party venue IS their home. It’s extra specially heinous if the party planners then don’t clean up after themselves.

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Angel April 22, 2013 at 1:25 pm

Piperpur, that is awful! I’m so glad you gave your friend the heads up. That to me would be devastating to have a get together that no one showed up to, and I don’t particularly have a fear of abandonment, I just have feelings–like most people do I would imagine.

As far as surprise parties go, in my family we throw surprise showers. My bridal shower was a surprise as far as what day it was but in the back of my mind I knew it was coming. My mom enjoys planning parties as did my bridesmaids. It was very nice and a pleasant surprise. But I couldn’t imagine throwing a surprise party for anyone who I know doesn’t want one. And no, I don’t think the GOH has any obligation to stay if they are not happy having a surprise sprung on them. I would never hold it against the person, for cutting their time at the party short, or even just walking out. Personally I have never known anyone to walk out of their own surprise party, but most of my friends and family enjoy parties and don’t mind being surprised.

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Erin April 22, 2013 at 1:37 pm

@Piperpur – wow, that “funny” party idea is beyond insensitive. Even someone without abandonment issues would be upset to have no one show up at what he thought was his birthday party. Good for you , having his back!

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technobabble April 22, 2013 at 1:45 pm

I have planned several successful surprise parties in my time, but two stories of less than stellar results on this topic come to mind:

An ex-friend of mine once went to the trouble of planning a surprise birthday party for me… After another dear friend of mine had already planned a not-surprise birthday party for me on the same day. Ex-friend was totally aware of this other party (in fact, he was invited), but chose to ignore it, and when I turned down his invitation to “dinner” because I had my own birthday party to attend that evening, he sent my party-planner friend a very nasty facebook message demanding she change dates and details of the original party so that I could come to his. The party-planner eventually convinced the ex-friend to merge the two parties, but he demanded that he got all the credit for the planning and the surprise. With all the drama going on, word eventually got back to me about what was going on. In an attempt to not make the situation any more awkward than it already was, I attended the party, acted appropriately surprised so as not to spoil the mood for anybody, and everybody had a wonderful time, except for maybe the ex-friend who spent evening pointing out what a great pal he was planning this party for me all by himself with no help from anybody. It took a few more years of selfish actions on this ex-friend’s part for me to realize that he wasn’t worth having in my life.

A few years after this, I started a relationship with my now-boyfriend. We had been dating approximately 10 months when his birthday rolled around. He is not a social person, and was looking forward to a quiet evening with 3 or 4 close friends. His mother bullied me into planning a surprise party with almost 20 guests. BF was not happy when he showed up. I promised him that night: No more surprise parties ever.

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BarensMom April 22, 2013 at 1:52 pm

I think that surprise parties are generally a bad idea.

This viewpoint came about after my siblings threw my mother a “surprise” birthday party. They threw a prior surprise anniversary party for Mom and Dad, which was well received by my parents. However for Mom’s 75th, my sibs didn’t take into account that Mom was many years older by that time. I brought Mom into the venue, everyone shouted “Surprise,” and Mom promptly sat down into a chair and fainted.

Sometimes people have good reasons for not wanting to be surprised, or have a party, or have any notice taken at all. It falls to the family and friends of the birthday person to be sensitive to their wishes.

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kingsrings April 22, 2013 at 2:15 pm

I agree with the majority that surprise parties are just not a very good thing at all, for a variety of reasons. I know I certainly wouldn’t like one thrown for me. I do also agree that should one find themselves in the unfortunate position of having a surprise party thrust upon them by the thoughtless planner(s), the GOH owes it to the guests to behave politely and civilly about it, and not throw a fit, or leave, or anything other that would put the innocent, unknowing guests in an uncomfortable situation. Regardless of whose fault it is, the guests don’t deserve that kind of behavior, period, and it is rude to subject them to that. Go chew out the planners AFTER the party!

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delislice April 22, 2013 at 2:23 pm

@Piperpur: Dear God.

So this person knows that your friend actively dislikes surprise parties and her response is:
A) I know that but he needs to loosen up;
B) It will be funny.

(Note: “you” does NOT refer to piperpur but to the party planner.)

A), who are you to decide that someone needs loosening up? Oh, wait. I know. You’re also the person who decides what cuisines other people should like (guess what — your favorites!), what kind of pet *everyone* should have (whatever you have), and who’s going to hell (surprise … it’s everyone whose beliefs don’t align with yours).

In other words: You have massive insecurity and approval issues and can function at an acceptable level of happiness only if everyone else’s choices, about everything from Pepsi/Coke to TV shows aligns or at least overlaps with yours. If someone makes different choices, they’re subtly telegraphing their secret disapproval of your choices. Since you can’t possibly have made a poor choice, it must be true that the other person has chosen poorly.

I.e. “He needs to loosen up.”

And B) If your idea of “funny” is someone else’s discomfort, anger, humiliation, and potential physiological reactions to something malicious that you did, deliberately, then you’re also actively cruel. I’m really glad you’re not in my circle of acquaintances.

In what universe would publicly humiliating someone be funny?

Oh, wait. I remember you from middle school.

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Wren April 22, 2013 at 2:25 pm

Piperpur, what a good, true friend you are. Your story made me get tears in my eyes as I thought of how protective you are of someone who needed it in that situation. If only everyone were so thoughtful. I think you literally saved someone’s life. And I am aghast at the person who thought that her planned party of no-shows would be funny. Does this person have any empathy at all???

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RooRoo April 22, 2013 at 2:47 pm

I’m going to deviate a little from the norm. I think that surprise parties are like practical jokes: they should only be done to people that the planner knows, for sure and without the shadow of a doubt, would enjoy it. Not “maybe,” not “probably,” but for sure.

Otherwise, I think that, like practical jokes, they are inherently rude.

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MsDani313 April 22, 2013 at 3:18 pm

My bf is not a fan of parties in general. He will attend as my companion and act appropriately but isn’t fond of them. He is especially not fond of surprise parties where he is the GOH. He doesn’t like being the center of attention. This past year for his birthday his family wanted to throw a surprise party for him. I told them he wouldn’t like it and would rather have a small dinner. They said he needed to “get over it” and “stop being a party pooper.” Because I knew that he would want a party, let alone a surprise party, I planned something else. Day of the party I packed him in the car and refused to tell him where we were going. He kept asking and asking and even said he would be mad if I was taking him to a party. I reassured him that we were not going to a party and even let him remove his blindfold to see that we were headed in the opposite direction of where his family lives. Meanwhile bf’s dad came to bf’s apartment looking for him to take him to the party and called to inquire about his location. Bf’s dad finally told him about the party after bf kept asking. Bf reminded his dad that he hates surprise parties and that he wasn’t coming. His dad got upset and called him selfish for not considering the family. Bf hung up as we pulled into our destination; a quiet B&B upstate on the beach. We had a picnic, breakfast in bed, went to a vineyard and all of the other cute stuff couples do in movies. Bf said it was the best birthday he’s had in a while because for once he didn’t have to bend to the will of his family. He has asked that I kidnapped him every year for his birthday so I have started planning for this year.

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Anonymous April 22, 2013 at 3:18 pm

Oh, yeah, Piperpur–echoing Erin upthread, that was a horrible story. Did you tell the party organizer that you “ruined” the “surprise,” so as not to ruin your friend’s birthday? If not, then I’m afraid that she might have thought, “I was right, Birthday Boy needed to loosen up, and my plan worked.”

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Kris April 22, 2013 at 4:17 pm

And this is why I plan my own parties. mostly because I know my friends will be happy with what I come up with – dinner and the bar and because I don’t want to put any pressure on them , as my birthday is two days after christmas.

@Piperpur- Please tell me he has stopped being friends with that person. That was not funny it was cruel, and anyone who would plan something like that is not a real friend.

@MichelleP- It may be best to leave your sister out of any future surprise trips. When she asks – tell her that while she doesn’t like surprises its not fair of her to make that call for others and ruin said surprise.

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Library Diva April 22, 2013 at 4:33 pm

Can I share the story of the most clever surprise party I’ve heard of?

It was for my fiance’s grandmother’s 80th birthday. She came from a large family and had several living sisters and brothers, plus 16 children of her own, all of the grandchildren, great-grandchildren, her own friends, her children’s friends who’ve turned into family friends, etc. No way they could have it someone’s home. So for her actual 80th birthday, a few of the family members held a low-key party in her honor. The surprise came two months later. They rented out a fire hall. One of her children made a fake flier for a carnival that was supposedly being held at the hall on that day, and persuaded her to join her in “taking the kids to the carnival.” She was really, really pleasantly surprised! They knew their audience though, and they knew she’d enjoy it. Sneak ones on people who don’t enjoy that sort of thing are just a set-up for trouble.

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Maggie April 22, 2013 at 5:51 pm

I am curious about one thing… if you’ve already told the plover straight-out you hate surprise parts and absolutely don’t want one, and they plan one anyway and you unknowingly walk into it, how would you make sure that doesn’t happen again?

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Bill April 6, 2014 at 8:41 pm

i HAVE actually KNOWINGLY (to ME) walked into an unwanted surprise party. I have NOT permitted ANY type of party/presents/cake on any birthday since that one. 23 years and have not revealed how I found out about it, only that I knew about it beforehand.

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Marozia April 22, 2013 at 6:52 pm

It comes down to personalities. There are people who love surprise parties and people who don’t. The friends that some consider to ‘loosen up’ are the ones who don’t like surprise parties. Don’t make them go through something that makes them uncomfortable. Why do you like this person and then want to change their personality?
@Piperpur & @CaffeineKatie had the right idea of questioning the choices, giving the friend the heads up and questioning testing the other friend ‘Barb’.
No means no in this case.

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lakey April 22, 2013 at 8:18 pm

This really hit home for me.
I don’t like being the center of attention. When I retired from teaching a few years ago, I told my principal point blank that I didn’t want a retirement party involving parents, students, etc. Except for the principal, who had to look toward replacing me, I kept the fact that I was retiring to myself. Once the news got out parents insisted they wanted to give me a reception. The principal was too gutless to tell the parents that I didn’t want to have anything public, and was too gutless to tell me, so he had a teacher tell me that there had to be a reception. The teacher said to me, “They want to honor you.” My response was, “How is it honoring me to make me do something that makes me uncomfortable?” I sucked it up, smiled, and went through it.

In fairness they did some very nice things for me. There was a monetary gift, some plants, and one student made up a scrapbook with class lists from over 30 years of teaching, notes that she had asked former students to write, and so on. I feel that you state your preferences, but as an adult, you accept the fact that you don’t always get your way, and go through it with as little embarrassing yourself and the guests who only mean well.

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Sansa April 22, 2013 at 8:32 pm

@Piperpur- what an awful, cruel thing that person planned to do to your friend! Thank heavens you found out and prepared him. We all need really great friends like you to help watch out for us!

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Anonymous April 22, 2013 at 9:16 pm

MsDani–I love it!!! Your boyfriend didn’t like surprise parties, so you gave him a surprise non-party quiet weekend for just the two of you instead. You sound like an awesome girlfriend. I think it’s funny that your boyfriend actually asked to be “kidnapped” for a similar weekend every birthday.

As for surprise parties in general, I think it’s a “know your audience” thing. I guess a good analogy would be, it’s usually not a good idea to surprise someone with a pet, because it’s a gift that comes with responsibilities. Even if someone likes animals, they may not have the space for a new puppy or kitten, or time to devote to the care, feeding, and training of the animal. So, a not-surprise pet that they chose themselves, and prepared for, would be a much better idea. Likewise, surprise parties come with the responsibility of acting gracious even if you’re upset to be thrust into the centre of attention when you just got home from work or school, or you were expecting a nice, quiet outing with just one or two friends instead of a major event with tons of people. If the birthday person had known about the party in advance, then that would provide a chance to either mentally prepare for the party, or decline it, just like “Would you like a puppy for your birthday?” would give the prospective recipient a chance to either say yes, and puppy-proof their house, or say no, and explain that as much as they love dogs, they couldn’t care for one now.

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doodlemor April 22, 2013 at 9:29 pm

I would also like to share the story of a surprising surprise party. This happened quite a few years ago.

The birthday man came home from work to an empty house, and felt rather sad that his wife and family seemed to have forgotten his birthday. Since it was a hot and sticky day, he stepped into the shower. When he got out of the shower and was toweling dry the phone rang. His wife was on the phone, and told him that he needed to go to the basement rec room immediately to get some sort of information that she needed.

Since the day was stifling, and birthday boy was home alone, * he left the towel in the bedroom* and went downstairs…..ahem…… au naturel. When he flipped on the light in the dark rec room 30 some people jumped out to yell “Surprise!!!!” I’m not sure who was surprised more.

That story certainly shows the perils of ever trying to surprise someone in their own home, and I don’t think that anyone should plan a surprise party for another unless they are absolutely sure that the recipient will enjoy it. And that the surprised person will be presentable, of course.

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piperpur April 22, 2013 at 9:41 pm

@ Kris I don’t remember the details now (this was 15 years ago and I moved away soon after) but she was the sister of someone married into the family so dislodging her was difficult. He did say he would never let her plan anything for him again.

@Anonymous I didn’t say anything to the hostess, but left that to the birthday boy. He told her he knew after the party but was afraid to say so beforehand in case she thought of something else dreadful.

Seriously some people never really leave middle school.

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