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Miss Conduct

Advice: When are you allowed to spoil a surprise party?

I know mom would hate it, but her friend wants to throw her a party and keep it secret.

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A friend of my mother wants to plan a surprise birthday party for her this summer, but so far, the only planning that seems to be happening is asking me to do all the research for it, from the restaurant to tracking down contact info of old friends. My mom is truly opposed to surprises. I have tried to persuade this friend that it would be better to plan the party with my mom’s knowledge. I also have a brand-new baby and a 4-year-old, and am too overwhelmed to do the planning she’s asking me to do. I’m in a tough spot, and would love your advice. I think this friend sees me as a stubborn and uncaring daughter right now.

R.D. / Newton

You’re not in a tough spot at all! Your mother’s friend has literally no power
to compel your behavior or ensure your secrecy. Unlike you, she realizes this,
and is bluffing hard. And you’re falling

for it!

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I’m surprised, frankly — as the parent of a 4-year-old you must know that the less power one actually has to enforce a demand, the more imperiously that demand will be made. Perhaps some reflexive respect for elders is kicking in and you’re treating your mother’s friend with more deference than she deserves. She’s got you so turned around that loyalty to your mother’s preferences is interpreted as uncaring! Wow.

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Tell Mrs. Partypusher that you aren’t in a position to do her party planning for her, give your mother a heads-up about the possible surprise, and refuse to engage with the topic any further, other than to confirm your attendance at the event.

If Mrs. P. still wants to plan the party
after the surprise has been blown, and
still wants you to do the work, don’t. Adults with desires for elaborate parties can do the work themselves, or hire party planners. She doesn’t get to draft you as stage manager for her party-directorial debut.

Now let’s talk about this surprise business, which you’re obviously clear on, but many people, like Mrs. P., are not. Some people hate surprises. Some people love them. If you’re in one camp it may be hard to understand people in the other, but here’s the beauty part — you don’t have to. You simply have to take them at their word. “No means no” is a standard for social behavior that goes beyond the sexual, and this is true whether or not the other person’s desires make sense to you personally. Don’t throw surprise parties for the haters, don’t spoil movies for those who love a surprise. Do not hug non-huggers, lie to vegetarians about the presence of chicken stock, or insist on singing to the birthday haters. Just don’t. If people are missing out on (your preferred) great joys of life, so be it.

If you are on the receiving end of this kind of boundary violation, make it explicit: “I’ve told you that I don’t enjoy being hugged, but you’re going to hug me despite that. Is that what I’m hearing?” You may not be able to stop the Mad Hugger (or whatever) but you might be able to break through their denial a bit, and at least you won’t feel you’re being complicit.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.