The Birthday Card Minefield

ABSTRACT - Why do we give birthday cards? What are their intended meanings? How do their received meanings compare to those intended? To investigate these questions MBA students selected three birthday cards for an older, younger, and same age recipient whom they described. They then conducted depth interviews with the recipients and compared their reactions to those the cards were meant to evoke. Results show that birthday card exchange is riddled with "landmines" that may cause mild to catastrophic miscommunication. We analyze gender, age, and relationship characteristics associated with these problems and discuss how birthday card selection may aid or interfere with bonding and ego consolidation.


Kimberly J. Dodson and Russell W. Belk (1996) ,"The Birthday Card Minefield", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 14-20.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 14-20


Kimberly J. Dodson, University of Utah

Russell W. Belk, University of Utah


Why do we give birthday cards? What are their intended meanings? How do their received meanings compare to those intended? To investigate these questions MBA students selected three birthday cards for an older, younger, and same age recipient whom they described. They then conducted depth interviews with the recipients and compared their reactions to those the cards were meant to evoke. Results show that birthday card exchange is riddled with "landmines" that may cause mild to catastrophic miscommunication. We analyze gender, age, and relationship characteristics associated with these problems and discuss how birthday card selection may aid or interfere with bonding and ego consolidation.


Americans will buy nearly seven and a half billion greeting cards of all brands this year at the rate of eight million cards a day (Hirshey, 1995). We are driving this demand with our messy, complicated lives. Greeting card developers provide us cards appropriate for an increasing variety of occasions and personal circumstances (Hirshey, 1995). Market research helps the industry provide cards for new occasions and recipient groups from former in-laws to gay lovers, and greeting cards are considered good indicators of social change and cultural attitudes (Brabant and Mooney, 1989; Demos and Jache, 1981; Hirshey, 1995; McGough, 1986; Mooney and Brabant, 1987).

Birthdays are an important North American ritual occasion in which people of all ages, ethnicities, and genders are celebrated as "special" individuals (Demos and Jache, 1981; Mooney and Brabant, 1987). The birthday card has become critical in these rituals and transforms communication into a gift. It has been suggested that the card's price is a sign value mediating the relationship signified by the exchange (Schrift, 1994). Previous studies have considered birthday cards as indicators of societal attitudes toward aging (Demos and Jache, 1981; Dillon and Jones, 1981; Huyck and Duchon, 1986; Schrift, 1994), communication of love (Mooney and Brabant, 1987), and gender-based expressiveness (Brabant and Mooney, 1989). However, there has been limited examination of the expectations held by givers and receivers of birthday cards and the complex role that birthday cards play as a vehicle through which to judge the quality or depth of interpersonal relationships.

This paper presents themes that emerged from personal journals and depth interviews. These themes suggest that birthday cards carry very distinctive messages and that both givers and receivers have well-defined expectations that may not be mutually recognized. As a result, the practice of giving a birthday card is a more problematic communication than it might seem. In many ways, the consequences of unsuccessful birthday card selection may be greater than those of not having exchanged a card at all. This paper utilizes a "minefield" metaphor to discuss the social risks and relationship dangers associated with giving and receiving birthday cards. The "birthday card minefield" must be negotiated for the giver to successfully select and deliver a card to the receiver. If the card reaches its destination and conveys the message hoped for by the sender and desired by the receiver, then the "mission" is a success. Unspoken expectations act as landmines that threaten to maim a relationship when they are inadvertently trod upon. Giving birthday cards to those with different personal characteristics, generations, or genders often involves crossing an especially dangerous field that threatens to create a card-giving cataclysm.


Qualitative data focusing on birthdays were obtained from slightly more than 100 depth interviews and personal birthday journals. MBA students at a Western university were asked to create personal journals reflecting their beliefs and memories associated with birthdays. In addition to the journal, each student selected three birthday cards: one card chosen for someone a generation younger than the student, the second card selected for a peer or spouse, and the final card targeted for someone at least a generation older than the student. As part of a larger study of birthdays, the personal journals included descriptions of these cards, the people for whom they were chosen, and the rationale for each particular selection.

The students subsequently completed two depth interviews: one interview with someone younger than themselves and one interview with someone older than themselves (often, but not always, the recipients intended for the cards selected earlier). These informants were shown the three birthday cards selected by the interviewer and asked to describe how they would feel if they were to receive each card. They were then asked to describe someone to whom they would send each card. A total of 98 cards were available for content analysis. The cards tended to be either humorous or sentimental, either directed to a particular person (e.g. Mother, Father, Sister, Nephew) or generic (no specific role identified), and almost always designed specifically as birthday cards. Analysis was facilitated by a qualitative data retrieval program.


A seemingly simple card can present a complex image for both the giver and receiver based on its particular style, genre, and content. The nuanced nature of this complexity is important when considering the emotional and sentimental value often attached to a card (Brabant and Mooney, 1989). Because sending a greeting card is an act of communication that does not require an immediate response, it is considered an excellent mode for transmitting messages difficult to deliver face-to-face (Huyck and Duchon, 1986).

For some informants, giving a card provides an avenue for communicating sentiments that would be too difficult for them to speak. For these people the printed message of the card is a tool for eloquently saying that which they feel they cannot say, or can only say more clumsily. In the words of one such person:

I prefer cards that can say what I can't say, because they come up with the words so well.

(55-year-old female)

Card givers often add a handwritten note to the card expressing personal sentiments specific for the intended recipient (Brabant and Mooney, 1989). These notes and letters expound on the feelings associated with the card and contribute a personalizing element to its message. Writing words on a page is often easier and "safer" than speaking those same words, and cards encourage the writing of thoughts that might otherwise go undocumented.


Through a letter or card I am able to tell people my feelings and express myself easier. So that is one reason I like birthdays, because I can tell that person about my love for them. The card is probably most important.

(25-year-old female)

Only a limited number of cards selected by the informants explicitly spoke of "love" within their text. Mooney and Brabant (1987) found similar results. But many cards were perceived as expressing love and emotion, even if they did not do so literally in the text. The very act of sending or presenting a card is sometimes seen as an expression of some level of love. When describing the card in Exhibit 1, one man said:

It shows that you consider yourself lucky to have your wife and that you love your wife a lot. I think it is very important to tell your wife that you love her and this does that. The picture is cute, too.

(56-year-old-male, Exhibit 1)

Studies have shown that humorous birthday cards provide a means for expressing and diffusing anxieties about changes linked to age (Demos and Jache, 1981; Huyck and Duchon, 1986). Humor can also be used to minimize the anxiety associated with expressing emotion within relationships (Huyck and Duchon, 1986). In these cases, the remembrance of the occasion with a card is perceived to convey emotion without having to confront it directly. This was frequently seen in the exchange of cards between men.

The reason for the card is that, although close, we have never been able to express how much we care about each other. The humor couches the sentiment to make it more comfortable for both of us.

(27-year-old-male, Exhibit 2)

Cards and Price

The purchase of a birthday card to commemorate the event or identify the giver of a gift is so prevalent that many in our sample did so without question. In the younger generations (those below the age of 50) some do not even consider the acquisition of a card as a monetary expenditure.

But now-a-days I just send them a card or make a phone call so I don't spend money.

(25-year-old female)

Informants sometimes equated the quality of the card with its price, and placing limits on the card selection due to price constraints was thought to minimize the value of the message and the sentiments expressed. For these individuals, it was important that a high quality medium be chosen as the carrier of their message. Because the card is often seen to reflect the giver's sincerity in acknowledging a relationship with the recipient, the quality of the card was seen to add value to the expressed relationship.

I just pick out the card. No I shouldn't say that because I know that when you look at the rack the cheap cards are way down at the bottom and the expensive ones are at the top. I start looking at the top and work my way down. Even if I like the message in a cheap card, I usually won't get it, I'll look for something that's a little more expensive.

(46-year-old female)

However, consumers in the older generation recognize that the price of cards has substantially increased over time. They are not as desensitized to price as are younger people, and acknowledge that buying a card truly is an expenditure of money.

It is that they have gotten so expensive. I hate it that I go to the store and I'm going, "Oh my gosh! $2.50! $1.95!" It's just like I'm getting them a present . . .The card is gift enough.

(54-year-old female)


In some cases, the cost can be a deterrent for the purchase of a card altogether. This avoids the pitfall of the "birthday card minefield" by never entering into it, although it is uncommon.


The process of birthday card exchange begins when the giver decides to select and present a card to an individual celebrating his or her birthday. Careful to recognize the inherent value of this process, most informants place importance on the card itself, as well as on the methods of card selection and purchase.

Personalization Emphasis

There is a general acknowledgment of the importance of selecting a card that best "fits" the individual who will receive it. Rather than pick just any card, considerable conscious thought is usually put into matching characteristics of the card and the recipient. Taking the time to evaluate the card's match with intended recipient allows people to appropriate mass-produced cards in order to send an "individualized" message. In this way, the selection of a birthday card seems related to the importance of "appropriateness" in the perfect gift (Belk, forthcoming).

What kind of cards do I usually buy? I usually buy humorous ones. Stuff that seems to fit the person and whether you think they can handle it. . .So I guess a lot of times I buy the kind that I guess that person would pick out, that fits their personality.

(33-year-old male)

In addition to the effort expended in finding the perfect card, many respondents spend time writing a personal message in the cards. The act of adding a personal note provides the means for further personalizing a rather generic medium of communication.

A certain amount of anxiety does exist in the card selection process, as givers feel pressured to acknowledge unique characteristics of recipients in order to find the best card both for expressing the desired message and for avoiding offense. If the giver does not know the recipient very well, this can be problematic. Rather than having the ability to reflect on the recipient, the giver must instead project his or her tentative beliefs about that individual into the process to compensate for their limited understanding of this person. With less familiarity with the recipient there is therefore less personalization of the card and more generic or stereotypical cards selected because they are safer.

I would send this . . .because I would be comfortable sending anybody a Garfield card. No matter what their age because he is a popular character and most people of all ages like him...

(46-year-old female)

Mood of the Giver

The giver generally seeks a card that best meets the desires of the recipient and appeals to this person's personality and tastes. It is not only the recipient's characteristics, however, that affect the card decision. Often the giver's mood is also an important consideration in the ultimate selection. Women of all ages in the sample indicated that their personal mood at the time of shopping influenced card selection.

Gender Expectations

In selecting cards appropriate for family, friends, and acquaintances, givers of cards utilize very consistent selection criteria based on gender expectations. These criteria act as guides to help in narrowing the focus for potential cards, and generally involve the differentiation between humorous and sentimental cards; humor is seen as best for men and sentimental expressions as best for women. The notion that men should receive humorous cards while women are "unable to handle them" is a common theme throughout the interviews, and one that is validated directly by some of the informants. The concern over women's inability to understand or appreciate humor is a strong deterrent to selecting humorous cards for women. Even if the giver herself enjoys the card and doesn't find it offensive, she might hesitate about sending such a card to a female friend.


Informant: Ooh! This one's dangerous! Ooooh! That's kind of a funny thought. For friends you might like but don't really like.

Interviewer: Would you give it to one of your friends?

Informant: Male friends. Women don't take kindly to that kind of thing.

(46-year-old female, Exhibit 3)

Socialization to the idea of gender-specific card content was already evident among the younger informants interviewed.

Interviewer: Who might receive this type of card?

[Exhibit 4]

Informant: A sentimental person, usually a girl.

Interviewer: How would you feel if you received this card? Exhibit 3]

Informant: It's funny, and I wouldn't mind getting a card like this.

Interviewer: Who might receive a card like this?

Informant: Guys that like joking around.

(13-year-old male, Exhibits 3 & 4)

Safety Net

Many respondents expressed a preference for humorous cards, but realize that the message conveyed through this type of card can be more easily misunderstood. To avoid the dangers of being misunderstood and also enjoy the fun of giving a humorous card, some people attempt to develop a "safety net" for themselves by giving more than one card. The use of more than one card can also provide the giver with the opportunity to convey more than one type of message to the recipient. In many ways this could be likened to a "public" and "private" card, so that a person has a humorous card to display to friends and family, and one that is more private and personal.

My husband gave me two cards. One was nice, kind of a little humorous. He saved the really naughty one for the next day.

(48-year-old female)


The actual card recipient is the person who ultimately determines the success or failure of the birthday card experience. Although the giver of the card can try to ascertain the expectations of the recipient, there is never complete knowledge about what a particular recipient desires. Just as the giver of the card enters into the process of selecting and giving a birthday card with certain assumptions, so too does the potential recipient of the card.

The card needs to be "Me"

It is very important to a recipient of a birthday card that it "be 'Me'". In saying this, the recipient is communicating a desire that the card appeal to him or her at a very personal level. The overall impression of the card should result in the recipient feeling that he or she was at the forefront of the giver's mind when the card was selected. Adding a handwritten note to a card is a very effective means of personalizing the card so that it immediately becomes unique to that person.

Informant: To me, it is the personal things that are added to it, it's the little notes that let you know they didn't just buy a card and sign it to get their job done for your birthday.

Interviewer: What do you think of this card?

Informant: It looks silly. It doesn't have any applicability to me; it is a generic birthday card you could give to anybody.

(15-year-old female)


Cards are remembered and saved

To aid in the ability to remember specific birthdays and the recognition by family and friends of the event through cards, some recipients keep the cards they have received, much as they would memorabilia for a scrapbook. This is supported by the findings of a 1986 Greeting Card Association survey which reported that nine out of ten people have at least one or two cards that they keep because they like them so much (Meer, 1986). In our study, aside from one man who talked about keeping the cards that his children had made, all of those who talked about "stashing" their cards someplace were women. These women varied in age from 13 to 73-years-old, with representation among all age groups. For some women, saving cards provides a means of remembering people and documenting their lives.

. . .So I put them in my basket or my file folder, and I probably never look at them again, but I know they're there. Family ones are the ones I'll always save. It's kind of neat if you save some of the early ones. I have appreciated that I saved some cards from my grandparents.

. . . You have their handwriting and that's kind of nice. Their signature.

(54-year-old female)

Recipients place great value on the cards that they receive, especially as they grow older. Therefore, the giver of the card should recognize the statement that he or she is making through the card and realize that for some, the card will be a timeless reminder of the relationship they share. A lifetime of interpersonal memories can be stored in a box containing birthday cards, and givers would ideally hope to be remembered as the one who sent the "perfect" card that year.


The successful delivery of a birthday card message is dependent on the careful alignment of the efforts of the giver with the expectations of the recipient. The giver and the receiver both enter the birthday card exchange laden with preconceived notions, subconscious beliefs, and hoped-for results. The inability to successfully realize all of the underlying messages leads to "landmines." Landmines are often tripped by personal, generational, and gender differences, and a differing perspective on any one of these levels can quickly lead to a failed birthday card mission.


The first landmine is based on an oversight of the importance of personalization to the recipient. Many people value cards that are seemingly chosen just for them and include a handwritten note, and yet they themselves may not attend to these things when giving cards to others. The desire to be recognized as a unique individual and remembered on or near one's birthday is critical, and often a generic card that has been signed but not personalized does not fulfill this wish.

Several of my siblings are card senders and never miss my birthday. While this may sound good on its face, the cards usually don't have any personal message in them and I discount them heavily. It is better to get a card with no inscription than no card at all, but it is best to get a handwritten message in the card. The commercial content of the card does not mean very much to me . . .Getting a card with no personal message is about the same as the computer generated cards I used to get from my dentist wishing me Happy Birthday and reminding me that I was due for a check-up. No message, no meaning.

(28-year-old female)



Aside from demanding different content and style for a "child" card as compared to an "adult" card, there is seldom recognition of any differences by age and generation that might affect the success of card exchange. Of all of the landmines, this is one of the most interesting, because it highlights the difficulties of trying to cross boundaries (those created by generations). In most of these situations, the giver of the card approaches the birthday card selection with the desire to find a personalized card and appeal to the uniqueness of the individual, and the recipient enters open-mindedly and ready to have his or her expectations met. Unfortunately, somewhere in-between the message is lost and the end result is uncomfortable. Some of the older people consider the difficulty in communicating cross-generationally as simply a by-product of an age-graded society:

Whether you like it or not, there is no way that one generation can know what another generation is doing or likes or does. You can be aware of it, but you are who you are.

(54-year-old female)

Making a more explicit claim, another woman explained why she is frustrated with characteristics she deems indicative of "today's generation."

I think that is typical of today's generation, I do . . .Well, they're not direct, they like to say I love you but they, um, they do love you and you can feel that but they're just not saying it like we were.

(63-year-old female)

In many instances, this inability to understand and communicate between generations arises when the older generation is unable to understand the humor or sentiments expressed in cards preferred by the younger one. A classic example of mis-interpreting what would seem to be a rather obvious card is found when a 76-year-old man tried to understand a risquT card.

Interviewer: How do you like these cards? Who would you send them to?

Informant: Well, I think they're all right nice. Yeah, I think they're real pretty. The first one I really don't know what it is. Looks like a couple of people wrestling . . .

Interviewer: . . . actually, it is a woman with her legs wrapped around a man

Informant: Well why would she want to do that? She might hurt him. I wouldn't send that to anybody.

(76-year-old male, Exhibit 5)

As difficult as it might be for some members of the older generation to understand the humor and subtleties of cards, those in this group are distinctive in their willingness to accept almost any type of card as a symbol of being remembered.

The lack of complete communication goes from young to old as well, as younger people repeatedly expressed their anger and disappointment with "grandparents" because they are unable to understand what youth really want in a card. With younger recipients, the tolerance for child-like cards was much lower.


The final potential landmine is one which involves gender issues. As discussed earlier, givers of cards have clearly defined beliefs regarding what is appropriate for a particular gender. Unfortunately, this can lead the giver astray, as numerous women mentioned that they like humorous cards (despite the giver stereotype evidenced in our data that women like to receive sentimental cards) and some men commented that they would not be completely opposed to receiving a card with some heartfelt sentiment (even if veiled by humor) from family and close friends rather than always getting generic humorous cards. Just as women too like to laugh, men like to hear that they are loved and are important in someone's life.

Unfortunately, however, stepping outside of the accepted "stereotypical" cards for a particular gender can be detrimental. One of the greatest problems confounding the gender issue is the belief that males and females approach birthday cards differently.

Girls always seem to like cards. Boys always wonder what to do with them.

(54-year-old male)


This analysis of the role of birthday cards and the issues surrounding the giving and receiving of them is beneficial in helping to better understand birthday card communication and the ritual significance of birthdays in a highly individualistic society. Many of us take for granted the importance of giving a card to recognize a birthday, and more often than not, we are not aware of the difficult journey we embark on in order to select the "right" card. The exchange of birthday cards has the potential to be a tool for social solidarity in that it helps connect people and generations, confront various gender issues, and provide a medium through which people can communicate feelings and sentiment that they find difficult to express in person. Unfortunately, every purchase of a card holds with it the threat of failure because of poor recognition of unspoken expectations or the inability to meet the personal desires of the recipient. Those receiving birthday cards are not necessarily forgiving, and those giving the card are often venturing into a potentially disastrous situation without being adequately prepared. In order to successfully negotiate this minefield and for the act of giving cards to have a desired outcome, the personalization, generational, and gender issues must be carefully considered and sensitively approached.


Belk, R. (forthcoming), "The Perfect Gift," in Gift Giving: An Interdisciplinary Anthology, Cele Otnes and Richard Beltramini, eds., Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press.

Brabant, S. and L. Mooney (1989), "Him, Her, or Either: Sex of Person Addressed and Interpersonal Communication," Sex Roles, 20: 47-58.

Demos, V. and A. Jache (1981), "When You Care Enough: An Analysis of Attitudes Toward Aging in Humorous Birthday Cards," The Gerontologist, 21: 209-215.

Dillon, K. and B. Jones (1981), "Attitudes Toward Aging Portrayed by Birthday Cards,"International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 13: 79-84.

Hirshey, G. (1995), "Happy [ ] Day to You," The New York Times Magazine, July 2, 21-27.

Huyck, H. and J. Duchon (1986), "Over the Miles: Coping, Communicating, and Commiserating through Age-Theme Greeting Cards," Humor and Aging. Eds. Lucille Nahemow, Kathleen A. McCluskey-Fawcett and Paul McGhee. Orlando: Academic Press, Inc.

McGough, R. (1986), "Pansies are Green," Forbes, February 10, 89-92.

Meer, J. (1986), "What A Card," Psychology Today, January, 16.

Mooney, L. and S. Brabant (1988), "Birthday Cards, Love, and Communication," Sociology and Social Research, 72: 106-109.

Schrift, M. (1994), "Icons of Femininity in Studio Cards: Women, Communication and Identity," Journal of Popular Culture, 28 (Summer), 111-122.



Kimberly J. Dodson, University of Utah
Russell W. Belk, University of Utah


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23 | 1996

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