On Surprise Parties

I've never been big on birthday celebrations, especially for me, and most of all I hate surprise parties. When I was in high school, my girlfriend and friends and parents organized one for me, and it went over very poorly. I think my gf knew it would, and really didn't want to trick me into showing up. But she did it anyway, cringing and waiting for the inevitable explosion. I barely recall the details, but she convinced me we'd have a nice dinner alone or something, and I was actually looking forward to that. So to be slapped with a surprise party really ticked me off, and I don't think I got out of my funk the entire time.

Most people would say I was a royal jerk for acting like that, and they may be right. But I don't think so. Though I could have handled my dislike of the situation better, I maintain I was within my rights to be unhappy about it. But at the time, as a teenager, the best I could articulate my objection was that I was expecting one thing, and then was suddenly the center of attention and had to put on a show for everyone else when I was thrown into a completely different situation. I didn't have a good comeback when someone would say "Well, why didn't you just go with it?" Apart from the fact that "just going with" anything has never been my strong suit (though having kids has taught me to ease up on that a bit), I thought I shouldn't have to go with it in that case.

It was in this context that I was very interested to read the account of a surprise party that was thrown for Ayn Rand by Random House when Atlas Shrugged was published. [I'm in the middle of James Valliant's The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics right now.] Apparently, Rand had been expecting a nice dinner out with her husband, and was not at all happy that she was thrust into the center of a party instead. Nathaniel and Barbara Branden later complained about Rand's "appalling lack of benevolence and grace, for our daring to take any action without her say-so."

According to Valliant's book (pg. 49) Rand later clarified her reasoning behind her dislike for surprise parties to Charles Sures:
First and foremost is that it puts the recipient in the position of having to suddenly switch his context and deal with an unplanned for, unexpected situation. What, she asked, is the value of that? This is what we do in cases of emergency, she said. We shouldn't be put in the position of doing it for a celebration. She objected to being 'put in a position' by someone else, of being deprived of choice in the matter. The giver mistakenly thinks that the shock of the surprise will be more appreciated than a planned-for party. On the contrary, [Rand] said. The recipient gets no benefit whatever from the surprise element. It adds no value over and above what would be derived from a planned-for occasion. Instead, it detracts from the value of the occasion, because the recipient is put in the position of being a guest of honor and a host at the same time. He has to put his shock aside and greet people he had not expected to see (or perhaps not wanted to see), he is expected to be grateful to the party givers who study him for his reactions, he is expected to be gracious and charming when he may feel annoyance, or anger, or [be] overwhelmed by the situation. . . . [Rand] made additional points. The giver has no right to be the final unilateral authority on how anyone's achievement is celebrated. And the giver has no right to be the sole arbiter to determine who the guests are. Most important, the giver has no right to be the one who determines how any evening out of the life of the recipient is to be spent. That's up to the recipient.

[When asked whether some people do not simply enjoy surprise parties, Sures said:]

That may be. She couldn't see any valid reason for them. But that's something the giver should find out in advance, if the pleasure of the recipient is the first consideration. And, she said, it should be. [bold added]
". . .if the pleasure of the recipient is the first consideration." That's the heart of it. I'm sure there are people who, without giving it much thought, truly believe that they're doing it for the recipient. But it's incumbent upon them to figure out whether the recipient would actually appreciate the surprise, if they are throwing the party for the pleasure of the recipient. If not, then it ends up that they are throwing the party at the expense of the recipient.

My high school surprise party has become a cautionary tale in my family, and because of that anyone who was in a position to want to throw me a party in the past 20 years inevitably heard the tale and was warned against it. Thus, I've been spared having to figure out how to handle such a situation differently.

High school me couldn't put into words why I was so upset about it, but I'm glad to finally see solid reasoning put down on paper to show that I wasn't just being a recalcitrant jerk.


Jenn Casey said...

I once threw a surprise party for a friend in high school, and while she handled it graciously, she told me afterwards that she'd really been looking forward to the play I'd told her we were going to see. I honestly thought I was doing something nice, but once she explained her point of view, I never forgot it.

We threw a surprise party a year ago for a friend--whom we KNEW would enjoy it, and he did. That surprise party was a pleasure for everyone involved.

Personally, I would HATE having a surprise party thrown on my behalf for the very reasons you (and Ayn Rand) explained. I would hate feeling the center of attention and to have my reaction critiqued. My sister knew of plans to throw a surprise baby shower for me when I was pregnant with Ryan, and wisely convinced everyone involved that that would be a REALLY bad idea. And then she told me, just in case! :o) That was the kindest thing anyone could have done.

I still shudder when I imagine the reaction of a pregnant, VERY hormonal me, upon walking into a surprise baby shower. It would have been UGLY, without a doubt.

What's interesting is that the people who wanted to throw me the party were honestly trying to be kind, like I was for my high school friend. It's understandable, to a degree, that a high school kid might not have enough awareness of a friend's personality to be able to figure out whether someone would like such a party. If I'd taken the time to think about my friend, I would have realized (I was only thinking about myself though). It's too bad though, that all the way grownup adults make the same mistakes.

Mrs. C August said...

For future reference, I, your loving wife, would LOVE a surprise party, assuming of course that I had dressed appropriately, showered and put on make up. Any reason to be the center of attention is a good reason for me. (You may want to remember that and start planning for my July birthday...) :p