Today is a special day, because today is my twenty eighth birthday. It is a day filled with congratulations, pie, kisses, gifts, calls, looking good and feeling absolutely fabulous! And it doesn’t stop there. There is a party on Friday and another on Saturday! Hooray!
So what is this thing we call a birthday? Why is this such a large part of our lives, across nations, cultures and even applicable to anything? What does it mean?
A birthday is quite literally the day that you celebrate your birth. It symbolizes a rite of passage: into life, into existence and even into death. It can be the celebration of a person, like me, but also of a pet, a company, a marriage or how about ‘Merry Christmas’. It can be a party for whom- or whatever you want it to be. But one thing is certain: it is special!
The twenty eighth year is a very special year to me, but it’s not so special as a ‘Sweet Sixteen’ in the U.S.A. or the quinceañera in Spain. It does not really change anything for me, except for the acknowledgement of getting older.
But what does it mean?
During my years as a Sociology student I once was captured by a sociological perspective called Symbolic interactionism. I took special attention to one sociologist in particular: Herbert George Blumer (March 7, 1900 – April 13, 1987). He could explain symbolic interactionism in a way I understood (after reading it a couple of times). This is from his book Symbolic Interactionism; Perspective and Method (1969):
“Humans act toward things on the basis of the meaning they ascribe to those things. The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with others and the society. These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he/she encounters.“
Our own personal way
To me that translates to the following. You, me and everybody perceive the world in our personal way. Why? Because I grew up with a lot of Dutch people around me, with my parents, sisters, pets, teachers, friends, family and you have your own group of people. The way you, for example, talked or played with each other or looked at each other in situations in life, created your own personal way of perceiving the world.
Yet, we are also the same.
Since we have learned things from each other, we not only know our personal perception of the world, but also yours. For example, I know I am supposed to bring pie to work. Because I know a birthday means bringing pie. Pie is a symbol of celebration, and we all know this.
In this case, I play the role of the birthday girl and thus I bring pie. My friends and family play another role. They congratulate and bring gifts. We know to play these roles due to our understanding of each other and thus our understanding of society, values and ideas we created and are still creating together.
Something to think about
So now you understand your role in the context of the situation, in this case, my birthday. However, this theory is applicable to any situation: shopping, being on holiday, protesting etcetera. What would your role be then? And what if you were someone else? Someone with different values, beliefs or culture, someone with another background?