“Pigs on my birthday cake”


So, this happened …

“You set pigs on fire for your birthday?” my Chinese tutor asked in English, with a look of amusement on her face.

“No! That’s not what I said.”  I took a deep breath, and tried again in Chinese, and what came out was, “I set pigs on fire for my birthday.”  OK?

“You’re still setting pigs on fire, Greg?”

“Candles!” I exclaimed in English. “I light candles for my birthday. I put candles on my cake and I light them.”


So how did I end up setting fire to farm animals as a birthday tradition?

When I started learning Chinese, it was through podcasts. And so, after a few months, I was able to listen to and understand a bunch of words and phrases, I could generally understand what the podcast host was saying. But I hadn’t actually been saying the words out aloud, I was just listening. So when I spoke the words in my head they sounded perfect, they matched exactly what the host was saying.

But my tongue hadn’t even begun the journey of actually speaking the words.

Because I wanted to improve, I hired a tutor who I’d meet with once a week over coffee. I’d still be doing all the memorizing of words and grammar rules myself (I didn’t need hand-holding for that!), but she’d be there to help my conversational skills. Speaking and listening.


For those who don’t know, Chinese is a “tonal language”. This means that several words can sound the same, other than the tone with which the word is spoken. And that tone completely determines the meaning of the word.

Here’s a great example:

Dear reader, say “OK” out aloud, like you’re agreeing with someone. Now say “OK?” like you’re questioning them. They sound different, right? And the difference is tone. The question has a rising tone, whereas the statement has a flat or perhaps falling tone. So in other words, the tone makes the difference between whether it’s a statement or a question. But in Chinese the tone completely changes the meaning of the word.

And I mean completely changes the meaning of the word. As you can read here, mā means mother, má means hemp, mǎ means horse, mà means scold, and ma means it’s a question. (Although they all look the same as ‘ma’, the tone marks show they sound different.) Wow.


So let’s go back to the coffee shop, and watch me embarrass myself further:

“But Greg, that’s not what you’re saying. You’re not saying (zhú), you’re saying (zhū). Although the base word is correct, yes it’s zhu (pronounced ‘joo’), your tone is wrong! You should be saying zhú with a rising tone, but instead you’re saying zhū with a high tone.”

“No I’m not,” I argued back. “I specifically said zhū. zhūzhūzhū. zhū.” Athena laughed as she leaned across to talk to an absolute stranger in the coffee shop, a couple of tables away. After confirming the other woman was indeed Chinese, she told me to say ‘candle’ to this lady.

And I did. I spoke my best Chinese, focusing on getting the tone right. In my mind I said it perfectly. I smiled and looked back at Athena.

“What word did he just say?” she asked the stranger.  “He said ‘pig’” she confirmed.

Arghhh! I was so damn sure I was saying it correctly. I could hear so clearly that what I said matched what my tutor said. And yet … here was a total stranger (who hadn’t heard our conversation) confirming in effect that I was saying it wrongly.


I was convinced that I could hear the different tones. And I thought I was saying it the way I should. But clearly I wasn’t.

When was I going to get these tones right? I was feeling really pessimistic, and starting to think I’d only get it right when candles learn to fly.

Simple Definition

Pigs on my birthday cake: This #hashtag-story describes a scenario where people honestly (but mistakenly) believe they are doing something specific, when the reality is they are not. It is not about deceit or denial, but about misconception.

Discussing what it means

How often have you been convinced you were doing exactly what you were told to do, but the truth is, you weren’t?

  • Maybe your piano teacher told you to slow down, and you insisted you were going slower (yes, you really believed you were playing slower) but she could tell that you weren’t
  • Did your golf coach tell you that you’re using too much wrist and that’s why you’re slicing the ball, but you argued back, positive that you weren’t using any wrists at all (although the ball was veering off to the side, let’s be honest)
  • Or does your partner tell you that you’re being passive-aggressive, but you don’t think so. (I’m not talking about when you’re actually being passive-aggressive but you just deny it while arguing, I’m talking about when you really really believe you’re not being difficult, but your partner insists you are. And your partner is right)
  • And if you’ve got children, you see this “lack of awareness” happening all the time.  Pedal straight! (I am pedalling straight!)  Chew quietly! (I am chewing quietly!)  But they’re not, and you can tell.

I was recently reminded of this type of problem when I was being interviewed on a Linkedin Live webinar about “Teaching Technical People to Sell”. The host and I were talking about things that technical people need to change, to overcome, in order to significantly improve their selling effectiveness. One of the comments we got back on the webinar was the observation that, when you remind the technical people that they need to ask more and talk less, they respond by saying “But I am!”

Yes, they really believe that they aren’t doing all the talking, that they’re asking questions and truly trying to understand what their potential client wants. But an experienced sales person in the room would disagree – it would be clear to them that the technical person is basically doing all the talking and no listening.

So why are they insisting they’re getting this right (in spite of their poor sales results, and in spite of the feedback from people around them)?

  • It might simply be a lie. Deep down inside they know they’re doing it wrong, but they don’t want to admit it in front of their boss (the same boss that is looking at their poor sales numbers).
  • Or sometimes it’s a bit like the #hashtag-story #[Sexually adventurous: 8/10] which reminds us that everyone sees the world through their own lens. This technical person might normally talk 90% of the time and ask 3 questions, but when they’re trying really hard then they talk 80% of the time and ask 7 questions. To their thinking, they’re making a massive effort, and they are as close to “mostly asking and hardly talking” as possible. But that’s just their ‘lens’, coming from the perspective of a technical person with a different baseline.
  • But this #hashtag-story takes that further. In this case we ignore the lies and the personal lens which is anchored to a technical baseline. Here it’s the person honestly (but mistakenly) believing they are doing what they know is right, when in reality they aren’t even close.

Make sure you’re clear on the difference between the above protestations. “Pigs on my birthday cake” is about the genuine (but mistaken) belief that they are doing it right, that they are doing exactly what they’re being told.

Communicating with others

If you’re in a coach-like role (as a parent, or with the people who work for you, or as a sports or music teacher) then it’s really useful to tell “your people” this story once, and then in future, when you’re telling them to do something and they’re insisting that they are doing what you say (when you know they’re not) you can simply mention “Pigs on my birthday cake” and they will immediately know what you mean.

(You get bonus points if you can correctly say zhú with an upwards inflection, and zhū with a high tone. You can practice here and here (the audio is in the >>).)

In relationships, communicating love is of course very important. It’s something we want to express to our partner, but it’s also something we need to feel from our partner that they love us too. In the classic book “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman, he explains that there are five ways that we express and receive love: words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, gifts, physical contact. And the basic premise is that the way people express love isn’t always the same as the way their partner receives love – potentially leaving the recipient feeling ‘unloved’, when they are indeed loved!

“Pigs on my birthday cake” is the fundamental principle which underlies the book. “You don’t show me that you love me!” (Desire: I want to spend more quality time with you.) “But I’m always showing you that I love you!” (Explanation: I buy you lots of gifts.) The one partner is frustrated – they’re not feeling love because they’re not getting it in the way they need it. But the other is frustrated because they are trying hard to show their love, it’s just being shown in a mismatched way.

Acceptance that this is a “Pigs on my birthday cake” situation is a great start, it’s worth making the point explicitly.

Admitting the mistake yourself

But let’s not just focus on pointing out to others when they fall victim to this mistake. Let’s also be prepared to admit when we’re not doing what we’ve been told, in spite of the fact that we’re convinced that we are.

When you’re getting this feedback, the most important first step is to flag this as a possible “Pigs on my birthday cake” situation. By doing so, you’re allowing your mind to accept the possibility that you might be wrong about what you’re doing or saying.

Because until you accept that you’re maybe saying ‘pig’ when you thought you were saying ‘candle’, you’re not going to change, and you’re not going to start doing it right.

Johari what?

This segues nicely into a mention of the cognitive psychology tool called the Johari Window, which splits the world in two ‘dimensions’: (1) things which you know about yourself and things you don’t; then (2) things others know about you and things they don’t. You can see this more clearly in the diagram below:

Johari Window about what we know and what others know

If you look at the top right hand corner, you will see a block called “Blind Spot” – and that is another way of saying “Pigs on my birthday cake”. Our so-called Blind Spots are things that others know about us, but we don’t realize.

  • So Athena (and the total stranger a couple of tables away) could both hear that I was saying ‘pig’, when I thought I was saying ‘candle’. Blind spot.
  • The engineer sales person was convinced she was asking lots of questions and talking little, but both her client and her own boss could tell that she was still basically just talking at them. Blind spot.
  • He was buying her lots of gifts to show how much he cared, but she didn’t ‘feel’ the love because she craved quality time to feel the love. She said he didn’t show her that he loved her, and he was convinced he was showing her all the time. Blind spot.

Self-help and Self-improvement

This is a major area where I see “Pigs on my birthday cake” all the time. Rather than writing a lengthy missive about this, I’m just going to list examples of where I’ve seen this in the last year or so, which should hopefully trigger an avalanche of thoughts in your own mind …

  • She was complaining to me that in spite of the fact that she has been on a low-carb diet for a couple of months, she hadn’t lost any weight. She was sure she was following it strictly. While she talked, I watched her devour a Caesar Salad which, although there was lots of lettuce, there was also a sugary salad dressing and croutons. She also had a cappuccino, and a few bites of a bread roll with jam. (And no, brown bread doesn’t mean no carbs.)
  • For him, his claimed “half hour jog, around 3 times a week” turned out to be – according to the graphs on his Fitbit – about 10-15 minutes of very light running, once a week. But he was sure he was doing what his fitness program told him to do, although the evidence begged to differ.
  • I recommended “Claim Your Power” by Maston Kipp to a friend, saying how powerful it was to work through the questions he asked in his book. She explained to me that she had read the book but didn’t feel she had come to any realizations about herself. Yet when I flicked through her book, I could only find three Post-it stickies with some of her notes, whereas my book had literally hundreds of scribbled-on stickies scattered throughout the pages. And yet she was convinced she had truly “worked through” the book, but gained no value.

OK, I accept that you don’t know what you don’t know. But if people tell you that you’re putting “Pigs on your birthday cake” and you keep fighting them, insisting that you are doing what they’re saying, then you will never know. And that does not make for a life of success and satisfaction. (Whatever success and satisfaction look like for you.)

Making it personal

Right, you’ve got your notepad (or Word document) ready, so you can scribble some more notes? Good, let’s go.

When you’re the one with pigs on your birthday cake

Let’s go through a few steps …

  1. What examples can you think of, right now, of people telling you that you’re doing something wrong (or at least doing something different to what they intended), but you were fighting them on it? (It’s common in relationships, and common between boss and employee, so it shouldn’t be hard to think of examples.)
  2. Now pick a couple of those examples, and try work out why you were getting it wrong. Did you not have enough experience? Did you not know well enough what ‘correct’ looks like? Did you have a different objective from the other person? For me in that coffee shop, I was saying ‘pig’ and not ‘candle’ because I had only been listening to Chinese, not speaking it, so my mouth didn’t realize I was getting it wrong.
  3. Now try work out why you didn’t immediately buy into their feedback. Even after my tutor had told me several times that I was saying it wrong, why did I continue to argue with her, insisting that I was doing it correctly? What about you?

Remember that we’re thinking about situations where you’re actually wrong, and you just don’t realize it. But there will also be times when someone insists that you’re wrong, but actually you’re right. But for now, ignore that possibility – assume they’re right. Even if they’re not, you can still learn a lot by – just for now – pretending that they really are right. And see where that takes you.

When it’s the other person putting pigs on their birthday cake

There will be an uncountable number of times during your life when you’re dealing with someone, giving feedback or guidance to them, and they push back at you, insisting they’re doing what you’re saying, but you can see frankly that they’re not.

For people you deal with regularly, where this is a common theme of discussion, share a copy of this article with them – let them read and appreciate the story. Then in future you two can talk about “Pigs on my birthday cake” and immediately understand and appreciate what the message is.

(And it really doesn’t matter if you can speak Chinese or not – all you need to remember is that ‘pig’ and ‘candle’ are the same word, other than the tone. That’s enough to share the story about this idiot you know called Greg who once couldn’t tell the difference.)

If you’re someone’s boss and you’re teaching them to sell (for example) then it’s perfectly reasonable to make an effort to coach them the best you can, and expect there to be noticeable improvement. But – as we say often on #HashtagYourLife – if it’s a friend or partner, it’s not our job to change them. That’s their job. Our job is to work on ourselves, regardless of the flaws we are sure we see in other people.

#HashtagYourLife is about action

It’s great that you want a better life. “Improve perspective, Become more effective. Through memorable stories.” And there is no problem if you want to read through these chapters without thinking deeply about what this means for you, how your life can be better if you adopted and implemented the principles. Honestly, that’s OK.

But your life could be better. And if you’re reading these chapters and things aren’t making more sense, if you aren’t feeling the over-whelm starting to ease off, if you aren’t becoming more effective in how you respond, then it’s worth asking yourself if you’re actually doing what these chapters are recommending that you do.

Are you the one with pigs on your birthday cake?

Related stories

#[Sexually adventurous: 8/10]

#[Umbrella in the sun]

#[F you!]

#[Seth’s prompts]


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