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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 October 2006, 12:20 GMT 13:20 UK
Card sharps
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

Card shop
Office cards: an upset co-worker waiting to happen

Birthday cards are facing a crackdown at one insurance firm in Dorset, which fears "ageist" jokes could break new anti-discrimination laws. But the etiquette of office cards is already fraught with pitfalls.

We've all been there - the sense of guilty irritation at the sight of a giant card coming round the office. There's going to be a high risk of glitter and pink overdose.

What are you going to write? A colleague is leaving, having a major birthday, getting married. So it's a big deal for them. But what are you going to write?

By now the card is half-filled with inscriptions - so there's no chance of getting away with a non-committal "Good luck" tucked away in the corner.

Coded prices

You've got to think about something amusing and original. Maybe that thing they confessed in the pub that night. Maybe not. Someone's already written a gag about their car crash injuries. Yep, nice sensitive touch.

And who in the name of Pam Ayres has written a four-line poem that doesn't even work as doggerel? It's not that difficult to find a word to rhyme with "obese".

You want to be gently amusing, but humour is a matter of taste. And one co-worker's hilarious tag line is someone else's ruined evening. But sincerity is even more cringe-making.

Card shop
Cloying or just lame? It's a tough choice

Who has written all that Mills and Boon stuff about missing them already and dotted all the "i's" with hearts? It's enough to put your teeth on edge.

The trouble is that cards are written in haste and then read at leisure. The next morning, you begin to decipher the messages. What are they getting at? What affair? Why is the longest greeting always left by the work placement kid you didn't even know? And why are there always a couple of completely unknown names? Geoff? Sue?

What makes a good message? One, perhaps apocryphal, inscription read simply: "I bought the card."

And let's face it, buying the card is even more of a wind-up than signing it. For a start, greetings cards are outrageously expensive pieces of decorated cardboard. Retailers are so guilty about this they have codes rather than price labels: JJ and such like.

And which card to choose? There are four basic categories: cloying, arty, childish innuendo or unfunny cartoon. Or else it's "handmade" which means they glue a twig on the front and an extra zero on the price.

'Wipe-away-the-tears kisses'

But why be so harsh on the greeting card. In the UK, we spend over £1bn per year on cards, sending an average of 55 cards each (think about it: Christmas cards). After all, cards are there to shed a little warmth in our cold lives.

Queen reading birthday cards
Humorous office banter on a card can surprise the unwary recipient

The proof is on the Hallmark website in the United States - where people can record how much a card can mean.

Pam from Pennsylvania had a card from her daughter she would never forget.

"On the front of the card it reads: 'Out of the door kisses, make-it-all-better-kisses, butterfly kisses, proud of you kisses, sleep-tight kisses, welcome-home kisses, good-luck kisses, wipe-away-the-tears kisses, no-reason-at-all-kisses.' Then you open the card and it reads "In my heart, Mom, I still have every one. Happy Birthday (with love and kisses)." You talk about reaching out and touching my heart!"

Er, "Good luck, Sean."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I always used to write on leaving cards: "We had some great times together - while you were out".
Steve, Århus, Denmark

I usually write "Have a drink on me" right under the tea bag I've stapled to the card
Rudey, Bognor

My standard for a birthday card is: "Happy B-Day! How's that for toilet humour?" It might not be that funny but then the card usually isn't either, so really it's quite apt.
DS, Bromley, England

I'm missing this article already, and I'll never forget the time I spent reading it. You've given me the most fantastic time of my reading life. I'm sorry - what was your headline again?
Nigel Macarthur, London

I've worked with many, many people in my career and I can honestly say that you've been one of them.
Ned, London

I left work when I became seriously and long-term ill, not knowing if I would ever be able to work again. One of the inscriptions in my "goodbye" card reads: Enjoy Your New Life!
Mary, Suffolk

It's always a boredom reliever to either put a deeply personal message from a non-existent member of the workforce or much more amusing, to endeavour to be the last to sign the card and "doctor" the bosses message. One year we changed "Thanks for all your hard work, Ken" to "Thanks for all your hard work, I don't know how I'm going to manage without you to look at each morning. if you ever fancy a drink one night give me a ring, Ken" Caused much merriment watching Ken squirm his way out of it
Katy, Lincoln

When I'm signing someone's card I draw a comical face with a protruding tougue and confused eyes.
Ben, Huddersfield

My usual comments on birthday cards are either "Hippo Bathday 2 Ewes", or "Hippy Bidet". Leaving cards usually "Good luck" - short and simple. I did once sign a card for someone I didn't get on with when they finally left, with "Our working relationship - magnificent was not the word". It took my colleagues a little while to realise exactly what I meant - well I could hardly put that I felt she'd overstayed her welcome by several years and that I hoped the fleas of a thousand camels would invade her armpits, could I?
Linda Fisher, Swindon

Where I work, no matter what the occasion there is always a message that says "all the best, John" despite the fact there has never been anybody called John in all the time I have been working there.
J, Liverpool

With greetings card prices always on the rise and the price of a bottle of the wine generally coming down, I know which I would prefer to receive from colleagues on my birthday.
Ian Ferguson, Southampton

Different messages can mean different things from different people. I'm not the same person with my boss as I am with either a male or a female co-worker. This means that what I put in their cards will vary, but I always try to be honest without cloying. (Very hard to achieve!) However I'm sure that to others reading my messages they are either too dismissive or overly lovey-dovey. You put what you want to put, but if you mention a person's age, prepare to be sued...
Heather, Wolverhampton

I make handmade cards in the true sense of the word and not a twig in sight... Please do not be so disparaging to those of those of us who truly do make beautiful cards.
Carol, Farnham

Quite right to disparage hand made cards. If they don't have twigs on they are covered in vile scent with mawkish designs.

"Can I have your chair?" usually works well. And, Carol, "handmade" was a) in quotes and b) part of a sarcastic remark, exposing pitifully the author's lost faith in capitalism, and not an affront to desperate housewifes. Get a life. And thanks, Heather, for your contribution; that was the best thing I read for a while - after the original article. Eye-opening stuff.
Jon, London

At an old workplace of mine, there were two cards going round at once - one for someone leaving to have a baby and a get well card for a man with pneumonia. Needless to say someone got confused and wrote "good luck - look forward to the teething problems" in the get well card. And no, it wasn't me, I was just one of the many people crying with laughter.
James, Birmingham

Do what I do, buy next year's Christmas cards in the January sales. You save yourself a small fortune come the "season to be jolly".
James B, Sheffield

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