May 25, 2018

Should I Wish Americans a “Happy Memorial Day?”

Visiting graves of the war dead
No is the short answer. 

Though I grew up in the U.S. and never wished anyone a Happy Memorial Day, I wanted to learn more about this to share it with you. 

Memorial Day is a day set aside to remember fallen soldiers (unlike Veterans Day); those who have died in the line of duty. When we think of those who have passed on, typically, it’s not a ‘happy day.’ So, if this probably well-intentioned greeting is said to a person with a relative, friend or neighbor who has given their life for the country, they could get offended or feel as if the person giving the greeting doesn’t have empathy for those who have traded their life for American freedoms.  


For Most Americans the REAL Meaning of Memorial Day is Lost 
From the reading I have done, there may be two main reasons many Americans do not know the real significance of this day. 

The first reason could be related to the fact that only .4% of the American population make up active- duty military (source). To top this, according to the same source (Bloomberg), “Military personnel also tend to come from certain parts of the country more than others.” While most military personnel come from Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and Virginia, the fewest come from Washington, D.C., North Dakota, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New York (see source page for more information). 

The second reason may correlate with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act which was passed in 1968 (which moved several holidays to a Monday creating three-day weekends), Memorial Day’s meaning has been degraded to being known more as the ‘unofficial start of summer and the end of the school year’ rather than it’s original intended meaning. 

So what are the origins of Memorial Day? 
Is it really a Happy Memorial Day? Probably not for many.
Memorial Day has it’s origins in 1868, when it was proclaimed that “Decoration Day” on May 30th would be a day set aside to visit the graves of fallen soldiers, decorate them with flowers and flags and honor them for their service. 

Unlike Veterans Day, which continues to fall on the fixed date of November 11th regardless of the day of the week, Memorial Day’s current observance is on the fourth Monday of May, creating a three day weekend. Some argue that by combining Memorial Day with a weekend rather than it being a stand alone holiday has been one reason this day has been degraded to a weekend of fun, frolic, bar-be-ques, road trips, and a trip to the local swimming pool which probably is opening for the summer season. Because of this, many do actually now have ‘fun’ on Memorial Day, and even go on vacations, which was not the original intended meaning of this commemorative day. For Gold Star Families (these are families with sons, daughters, fathers, mothers or relatives who have died in battle) or those who know Gold Star Families, they can tell you how they feel about most modern ‘observances’ of Memorial Day.  

What can I talk about for Memorial Day? 
In a previous post, I shared some small talk tips for this day. As this blog is related to discussions people have in professional or work spaces, I shared some common questions or topics people may talk about around this time of the year. While many of those topics related to ‘fun’ aspects of this ‘unofficial kick off to summer’ long weekend, none point to the delicate issue of how to talk to colleagues who are come from Gold Star Families or who commemorate Memorial Day based on it’s true, intended meaning. 

It may not always be apparent who among your colleagues is a Gold Star Family member or who knows someone who has died in the line of duty. If you are unsure about this, we can ask vague questions relating to the long weekend:
1. Any plans for the long weekend?
2. Do you do anything special for Memorial Day?
3. How do most people here spend the Memorial Day weekend?

If you do know about a colleague who has a family member or friend who has served and is part of the war dead, and they have been open about talking about it with you or others, we could ask them questions like:
1. How do you commemorate name of person on Memorial Day?
2. I hear that on Memorial Day, it’s customary to celebrate the lives of those who have died in the line of duty. I remember that you mentioned that your relative served in the military. How will you remember him/her on Memorial Day?
3. Do you attend any events for Memorial Day?

Rather than specific questions, if your colleague is open to talking about their relative, some people just like to talk and share good memories and stories of their loved ones. It doesn’t have to be related to war or the military. Just as any of us like to share stories of our near and dear in everyday situations, they may like to remember and share stories of everyday experiences they had with their relative. Be a shoulder to lean on and an empathetic friend to listen to their stories and memories. 

Should I thank them for their family member’s service?
I am not sure if everyone wants to hear this. Most people know this is coming from a good place, but then others feel that accepting thanks is akin to bragging. Most veterans (alive and passed on) and their families feel like they are just doing their job, so praise or thanks is not required. I doubt anyone will get offended to receive this message, but it may not be the message they are looking for.

Are you part of a Gold Star Family? Would you like to share what you would like others to know about Memorial Day and how to talk about Memorial Day on this day of remembrance? If so, feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below. Thank you.

Author, Jennifer Kumar, provides US culture preparation courses for expats coming to the U.S. as well as those working with Americans on global, virtual teams. Get in touch with us for more information.

Further reading: 
Memorial Day FAQ with suggestions on how to observe 
Some typical small talk conversations had this time of the year 



Image credits:
People sitting at grave, U.S. Army, creative commons flickr
Flags, Ian Sane, creative commons, flickr

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