How to Survive the Awkwardness of the Office Holiday Party

Don Tennant
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If you’re dreading the upcoming office holiday party because you’ve found these things tend to be a little awkward, you’re certainly not alone. Partying with people you probably don’t ordinarily socialize with can make the occasion more of an ordeal than an enjoyable get-together, and begging off typically isn’t easy. So perhaps you could use some advice to help you get through it.

Enter Geoffrey Tumlin, a communication consultant and author of the book, “Stop Talking, Start Communicating.” I wrote about Tumlin earlier this year in the context of how to improve lousy communication in general. I found his advice pretty sensible, so when I learned that he had come up with some advice for enduring the awkward personal encounters that invariably present themselves at the annual office holiday party, I figured they would be worth sharing. So here are Tumlin’s five tips for surviving the event as painlessly as possible:

Embargo the eggnog. The lubricating effect of alcohol is largely responsible for many holiday office party communication disasters. I hate to be a spoilsport, but nothing reduces office party incidents as effectively as steering clear of booze and the people who’ve had a bit too much of it. One of the main reasons for verbal blunders at company holiday parties is that alcohol lowers our inhibitions, which erodes both our conversational restraint and our self-monitoring ability. Loose lips cause many verbal slips. As for what to do if your boss is pressuring you to drink, there may not be an easy answer, but you do have options. You can get a drink and nurse it, or get a drink and say you need to say hello to someone. Or you might say that you don’t feel like drinking, either because you don’t feel well, or simply because you just don’t want to drink on this occasion. Communication is much more unpredictable when people have had a few drinks, and often you find much more of a downside than an upside when inhibitions are loosened in a professional setting.

Master the exit. The graceful exit is another highly effective office party strategy. Knowing how to extract yourself from awkward or embarrassing conversations minimizes trouble and shortens problematic interactions at the company party. You can tactfully break contact by excusing yourself to the food line, to the restroom, or by saying that you need to say hello to someone (your boss is often a good excuse). But if someone is causing a disruption that’s involving other people, don’t worry about being tactful—just make a quick exit. Don’t worry about following social etiquette if someone has already thrown good manners to the wind. He’s already abandoned normal social behavior, so you don’t owe him the courtesy of a tactful exit.

Invest five minutes in recalling names. No one likes to draw a blank on a name you should have known. Fortunately, you can avoid many uncomfortable moments by recalling, just before the party starts, names of people you expect to see. The best way to increase the odds of remembering a name is to put it at the front of your mind before the interaction. Take five minutes before the company party to think through the names of people who are likely to be there. It’s a simple but powerful way to decrease the number of times you blank on a name you should have known. If you end up stumped on a name at the party, ask early in the conversation for the name you can’t recall. Say something like, “Please tell me your name again,” as soon as you realize that you’ve forgotten the name. The longer a conversation goes, the more awkward it becomes to ask for a name that isn’t on the tip of your tongue.

Partner up smartly. What about the dreaded party introduction, when your spouse or a colleague is standing beside you and a third person—whose name you’ve unfortunately forgotten—is clearly expecting an introduction? You can eliminate the dreaded party introduction—and a number of other awkward incidents—by establishing a few conversational moves with your spouse or with a partner before the holiday party. Develop a plan with your spouse or with a coworker you’re attending the party with to automatically introduce themselves whenever you hesitate for a moment upon encountering someone new. This will trigger a reciprocal introduction and, crucially, will produce the name you can’t recall. Once you have the name, you can always follow up with an apology for not introducing the other person if you like. For example, you might say, “I’m sorry, Jim, I should have introduced you two,” or, “My apologies, I thought you knew each other.” A good partner can also get you out of all kinds of company party jams. Your spouse or your party partner can be the person who asks for both of you to be excused from an awkward or a dwindling conversation by suggesting that you head to the food or drink line, or by asking for you to introduce him or her to your boss. Use a partner at the holiday party to give you the reasonable external excuses you need to tactfully get out of conversations, and let your partner help you move along if you’ve lingered too long in one discussion.

Don’t disguise stalking as networking. It’s a good idea to offer holiday greetings to your colleagues, your direct reports, and your boss, but don’t seek out all of the head honchos and try to give them yuletide greetings at the company party. The most senior people often get hounded by people currying favor at the holiday party. If a natural conversation emerges with someone from Star Fleet Command, that’s great. But don’t stand in line to talk to someone you barely know. She’s probably trying to enjoy the party and would almost certainly prefer to be left alone. Greet your boss and, perhaps, your boss’s boss. After that, relax and be open to any other conversations that may come your way. And scale back your expectations about the party. Worry less about who you need to meet, and what you need to say. Focus more on minimizing awkward conversations and enjoying as much of the gathering as you possibly can.

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