There are many reasons that the holiday season inspires epic anxiety in some people. There is the cost, which inevitably, year after year, proves the pre-Christmas jitters of retailers unfounded. There’s the pressure of gift giving, which in my experience amounts to equal parts impulse, judgment and regret, not always in that order.
And there’s the test of one’s fight-or-flight response that comes with family gatherings.
Then, there is the office holiday party.
This can take many forms, from simple drinks and snacks in the workplace for smaller firms, to the group dinner at a restaurant, to a grand affair in a hotel ballroom. Almost no one is having those these days. Okay, maybe Canadian banks and gas-frackers.
And yes, you’ve worked especially hard this year, what with more cutbacks and layoffs, and you’ve been doing the work of three people, and if anyone deserves to kick back and have a little fun it’s you, right?
Wrong. The office holiday party is no place to have a good time, at least not according to the reams and reams of advice dispensed on various websites and blogs. (Sample piece of advice: Do not book your office party at a Hooters.)
Rather than an opportunity to have fun, the office holiday party is a chance for you to demonstrate to your co-workers and bosses that you are not a replicant and that you are capable of maintaining eye contact and having a conversation.
This of course is more easily achieved with the help of a few cocktails, which is why the chief office party concern seems to be alcohol consumption. Not because blowing over .08 in British Columbia will now get you hard labour on a chain gang for 30 years, but because of the potential to embarrass yourself.
The advice? Don’t drink too much. You don’t want to be the butt of jokes on Monday morning. One site advises that you “Always have a glass in your hand; this is a social occasion!” Another suggests that if you’re in a workplace where people do drink a lot, start off with a rum and Coke and then switch to plain Coke. No one will know how much you’re not drinking. In these days of corporate restraint, workplaces tend to be pretty miserly with the drink tickets. Getting drunk at an office party means hitting up the non-drinkers for their tickets, or front-loading at the bar downstairs.
Another common tip: Don’t dress too provocatively. The key word here: “too.”
No excessive cleavage, no holiday colours or crazy animal prints, dresses shouldn’t be too short or too tight, and don’t wear heels that make you taller than the boss.
Sure, you might want to sex it up a bit, being the evening and all, but be mindful of the fine line between festive and trashy.
For men, much less complicated advice: Get a haircut, and consider a velvet blazer.
On how to conduct yourself during the party: Be prepared to make small talk and lots of it. The office holiday party is a chance for you to branch out and have conversations with people you might not normally talk to at work. (There’s a reason for that.) “Don’t talk shop!” Ask them about their families, their hobbies. Talk to their spouses. Some suggest jotting down potential topics of conversation on the back of business cards. If it comes to this, I’d say it’s time to leave.
Here’s another sound suggestion: “Dance, but only if there is music.”
Also, “If there’s karaoke, participate. This will show that you're a team player and not excessively risk-averse.” If I may inject my own advice on this important topic: In my experience, the choice of a karaoke song is of utmost importance. You'll want to choose a happy, bouncy crowd-pleaser – something people can sing along with. Neil Diamond is always safe, especially if sung ironically. The Black Eyed Peas’ My Humps is not.
Finally, the holiday party is not the time to confess your secret crush to a co-worker. That’s what texting is for.
If, in the end, you find yourself in the middle of a bunch of stiff-looking sober people, (some of them wearing velvet) struggling to make conversation and fighting the urge to tweet your misery for all to see, thank your holiday party hosts. They’ve done everything just right.
Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.