Social Minefield: Navigating The Office Holiday Party

Blurring the social and the professional is always tough, and nowhere do these two blur more thoroughly — or more (potentialy) catastrophically — than at the dreaded office holiday party. Here's how to emerge with your dignity (mostly) intact.

Office holiday parties are infamous: a quick poll regarding celebrations past turned up tales of drunkenness, ill-advised make-outs, vomiting, awkward forced dances with the boss, humiliating misunderstandings, a feather boa, and, of course, coworkers' judgments of all of the above. But how to stay out of the ranks of the judged? A few tips:

Don't get drunk.

This is the first piece of advice everyone gives about office parties, and the rationale is pretty basic: getting drunk makes you do stupid shit, and you don't want to do stupid shit in front of people you work with. Career expert Nicole Williams thinks you should always have a drink in your hand at the party, in order to make other people feel comfortable, but I think this is unnecessary. Just take a break from drinking if you start getting into that loud, oversharey zone that, at a normal party, can be kind of fun. Or if makes you feel better to have something to hold onto (and I've been told this is why everybody used to smoke at parties, back when you could do that indoors), just sip slowly or drink beer. Or soda! Ladymags will tell you to drink wine spritzers in this situation, because of their low alcohol content — but if you go this route you're on your own, because I think they're disgusting.

Don't dress ironically.

Look, I like ironic dressing as much as the next girl — and at the right kind of party, being way overdressed or way underdressed can be funny and fun. This is not the right kind of party. So leave your feather boa/prom dress/ugly Christmas sweater/t-shirt of a state you never lived in/dinosaur costume at home. Think of your office holiday party as a five-year-old — it doesn't get sarcasm. (For more holiday dressing tips, stay tuned for tomorrow's Dress Code.)

Prep your date.

Opinions differ on whether you should even bring a date to the holiday party (assuming that a) you know someone you want to bring and b) dates are actually invited). Charles Purdy, author of Urban Etiquette, tells MSNBC that you shouldn't be "afraid" to bring somebody, because "It allows your colleagues get to see another side of your life." But Williams says "if there are career-advancing opportunities, you don't want to have to drag your partner around with you and babysit him or her." I'd go with the rule of thumb that if your date is going to make you more comfortable and also have a decent time him- or herself, go ahead and come plus one. The two really go hand in hand — you're not going to feel at ease if your date is bored and you have to "babysit."

But if you do bring someone, a little prep work is a good idea. You might want to go over some basic things like your boss's name, any coworkers who are tough to get along with, and maybe a little bit about your office culture — is it okay to curse, for instance? Are there any specific conversational topics to avoid? And if your date is someone who likes to get in spirited arguments, you might want to ask him or her to refrain for one night — just as you might at a family Thanksgiving.

Actually meet new people.

Especially if you're shy, the temptation to hew close to people you already know can be pretty strong. Resist! This doesn't mean you have to rush around making small talk with stranger after stranger — but if, say, people you don't know are hovering on the edge of your conversational circle, try to welcome them in. Or approach someone you know who's talking to a bunch of people you don't know. And set manageable goals for yourself — Latoya Peterson's awesome post on networking for shy people advises that you "try to locate one person that you want to talk to" or "approach three people, and try to initiate conversations with them using three different topics." Giving yourself a small, specific tasks like these may help you feel less pressured than just telling yourself to "mingle."

Lots of people make a big deal about the office holiday party as a chance for networking, and they're not wrong. But "networking" is kind of a scary, un-festive word — and it's worth remembering that meeting people is also good for its own sake. If you're friendly with more of your coworkers, you'll probably have a better time at work. So don't feel bad if you don't impress the big boss or whatever — even if you just introduce yourself to the lady who sits two desks down from you, you're doing fine.

Don't feel like you have to stay til the bitter end.

Says Randall Ryder of Lawyerist, "There is nothing wrong with making an appearance and then checking out. [...] You can always make an excuse for why you needed to leave early — yet you will still get credited with showing up." If it's an issue of shyness, don't rush out before at least trying to talk to people — you'll just feel bad later. But as Ryder says, if things are getting crazy and you want to avoid getting caught up in whatever debauchery's going on, or you find that you're getting too drunk and you want to quit while you're ahead, it's fine to duck out early. Especially given some of the alternatives ...

Don't blow anyone.

Or rather, don't do it at the party. This is not the time for Social Minefield to pass judgment on inter-office hookups (okay, I will say that office-holiday-party sex is just below after-prom sex on the cliche meter), but if you choose to have one, it's best to take things off-site. A large proportion of holiday-party horror stories I received involved makeouts and/or blowjobs unfortunately discovered because they occurred at the party venue. Don't let this be you.

If you screw up, just let it go. Usually.

Obviously this doesn't apply if, say, a sexual harassment claim is being leveled against you. But if you vomited into a potted plant or table-danced or engaged in any of the ill-advised but still technically legal behavior for which office holiday parties are infamous, don't go around apologizing the following Monday. I've already made my position against the post-drunk apology clear, and the same holds for office parties — in all but the most egregious cases, apologizing is just going to draw more attention to your fuckup. Brush yourself off, pretend nothing happened, and don't get so drunk next year.

But how to determine what are the most egregious cases? For this kind of thing, I recommend a faux pas buddy. Especially if you're even a little socially anxious, this kind of friend can be good to have in a whole bunch of situations. He or she doesn't have to work with you, or be at the party — on the one hand, only somebody who was there can tell you for sure how bad you were, but on the other, an outsider's perspective can be the dose of reality you need to stop you freaking out. Nine times out of ten, whatever you think you did or said is not going to sound nearly as bad to someone else — stressful situations can make you hypersensitive, and I'm convinced that there's some sort of biological process that transforms alcohol into morning-after social guilt. Find yourself a buddy who's honest — you need to know if you really do need to apologize — but who can also talk you down if you're just going to embarrass yourself further by reminding everyone of some small misstep they're liable to forget. Having a friend like this can help you distinguish between your head and reality — a key distinction for the office holiday party, and beyond.


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Lampshade Alert: Surviving The Company Party [MSNBC]
Behave At Office Holiday Parties [Lawyerist]
Beware Office Holiday Party Gaffes [CBS]

Earlier: "But... I'm Too Shy To Network!"

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