Joseph Lopez: How to survive office holiday parties

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Office Christmas parties are here, or should we say office holiday parties? I used to work for a company that has an annual invitation letter which always begins with “We would like to invite you and your significant other to a non-religious, non-offensive to anyone in anyway, end-of-the-year dinner this...” Of course the intent was for no one to feel out of place—or have an excuse not to attend the function—unless you are very sick (which can be questionable if you were not sick the day before).

So how should we handle office holiday parties?

First of all, an office holiday party is still a company operation, that’s why the modifier “office” is first. The party is actually “work”albeit a different kind where you don’t talk about work, and you don’t do your normal type of work. Make sense? Even if the celebration is in a hotel or restaurant, in essence you are in an office environment with the head honchos. This means it would be best for your future in the firm to be there.

So what do you need to be mindful of?

Find out if it is alright to bring a spouse or a partner if the invite has no indication. Did you notice how I limited your guest choices? It is a bit out-of-place to bring family or even a friend. This is not the PTA or a fraternity open house. If you are gay and you have not outed yourself months beforehand, an office affair might not be the best place to do so.

Now that we have cleared that matter, let’s talk major—the outfit. Words like conservative, decent should reflect from the mirror. Dress up like you are going to a business occasion, which you are, and not to a nightclub. The office party is not in the true sense a party where you can hang loose, though we all call it a party. No need for ties for men, unless that has been the historic de rigueur, and no plunging necklines for either gender. Nothing revealing, nothing flashy, or too much bling for everyone. For women, it is most likely a good time to wear a formal outfit from your home country—just avoid attires that show the navel or belly—a bit disconcerting in many cultures. But with men to project culture, for some reason it’s a different matter, unless multicultural is the theme. There’s that macho code of being part of the boys—so when in Rome do as the Romans do.

Holiday parties are the few times in the year when it is sometimes perfectly alright to cheek to cheek a female colleague, or give a light bro hug. Do it on a case-to-case basis, with sensitivity, if the close encounter prompts you. You will pat yourself at the back for taking a shower earlier, and having a dab of cologne or perfume. Guys please take a break from body sprays which are perfect after a gym work out, but can be pervasive in a crowded room.

Set the cellphone on vibration mode—better yet leave the thing in the car. It is rude to be texting when you should be socializing. If you need to check, step outside for a moment—but no longer than a couple of minutes.

It is perfectly alright to greet people with Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, even if you make a mistake with their holiday affiliation. At this time of the year and this being a party yet still work, people are more forgiving. Perhaps it’s the wine. In any case, an unintentional faux pas will not get you into trouble.

This one you probably know already. Have a glass or two of wine or just a bottle of beer. But not both. Although the belief that mixing wine and beer quickens your intoxication has been debunked by science, it does look tacky to drink both in any order. If you are driving, or you are the type who can’t control it, then abstinence will save your life or your career. Just think about tomorrow—you would not want to be the laughing stock or have the boss half-jokingly half-seriously chide you for setting his budget back because of your bar tab.

Do you have a paparazzi compulsion? A lot of people these days are concerned if their images will show up in Facebook or other social media. Ask first.

If there will be a gift exchange, it is better to be on the generous side. If the budget is really tight, how about something homemade like muffins? Absolutely no sex toys or risqué stuff which might appear funny but really salacious. You are not with buddies, at least not all of them. This is also not the time to give gifts to a select few and make others feel they are not part of your clique. Do your Santa Claus in private.

Who should you sit next to or in between can become stressful if you did not bring your SO (significant other) as a safety net. You have to be strategic here. Right at the get-go, try to stand next to and talk with people you hopefully will be comfortable with talking, or not talking, for the next two hours. Or you can be by yourself quietly with a drink in hand (can be non-alcoholic) and you will be amazed at how sooner or later someone will approach you for a chat. There is always someone there in your shoes (oooh, I don’t want to be seen by myself).

Ahh that small talk, those palpable pauses, that deafening silence! You know what? Just give it time and you will be surprised at how bearable it is not to talk or look at each other for a while. At the right time, at the right cue, something or someone will come up to resume the chat or undo the link.

Steer clear of gossip, or conversation on office issues, anything work-related. This gathering is really an opportune time to know more of your colleagues’ or managers’ families, children, and holiday plans. You can even violate the social rule of not talking politics or religion (it’s Christmas!) if you focus on the agrees and diplomatically give another angle. Bite your tongue if an off-color joke, especially sexual or racial, comes into mind. You never know who can overhear and realize your subconscious mind-set.

Stay positive about the food, everything actually about the party. After all it’s free. Nonetheless, this is not a license to indulge. In any get-together, other than with family, overeating and overdrinking are frowned upon. Eat before the party to ensure you maintain your carriage literally and figuratively.

If you are vegetarian, or for religious reasons you cannot eat what’s on the table, quietly ask the server who most likely can accommodate your request or provide suitable alternatives. Don’t make a fuss about it. A gentle explanation with a smile to the rest of your tablemates, in case they bat their eyebrows, will impress them on how well-bred you are. Likewise for drinks. In case you forgot, red wine and white shirts don’t mix.

I would bring a toothbrush and floss tucked in a pocket, and make a quick excuse to go to the washroom to remove unsightly tooth plaque or discoloration, especially when it comes to having greens or dark sauces.

The best time to leave is a short while after coffee or tea and dessert. By this time, the drinking should have stopped somewhere during the main entrée.

Bring some cash for a tip for the coat checker or the server. Be nice. Talking of jackets or overcoats, in formal dinners it is considered polished not to hang anything on the back of your chair. Wear it or check it. Make sure you have your coat properly tagged or labeled especially if yours is a hot mink or a very politically incorrect real animal pelt.

When leaving, don’t forget to say “thank you” to the boss. An e-mail of appreciation as a follow-up the following day or in case you forgot to express it the night before would be good manners no matter who.

Side point: clean your car earlier in the day in case someone needs a ride home. Tidying up in a poorly lit parking lot is irksome. Besides it always feels good to drive in a neat one.

Never call in sick the following day if it is a work day. Cheeky. Show up for awhile, if you must.

Lastly (unless you have other suggestions), graciousness and moderation should be your guides in any party, office or not, holiday or non. All else can fail, but if one is good-natured in speech, and easy on consumption, then at the end of the day or the evening, you will feel happy with yourself. And that is what the festivity—Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, or ?—is partly about.

Happy holidays, everybody!

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