It’s party season, and this week will see office Christmas parties take place all around the country. And whether it’s a full-on shindig or a pub lunch, most of us will get roped into an office do this December. But what if you’re just not a party person? Writer Amy Swales is here to help the awkward-of-heart survive the season unscathed…
In a previous office, in central London, former colleagues of mine used to mark the march of December not with tiny pieces of chocolate behind cardboard doors, but by the piles of red wine sick appearing on pavements and in doorways.
The earlier in the day our vomity markers of festive joy made an appearance, the closer we were to party season proper. To the weeks in which day and time no longer matter, in which we’re just as likely to see a spillage of besuited men and women flailing around the streets – topped with colourful hats and clutching half-wrapped Secret Santa gifts – at 3pm on a Tuesday as at 11pm on a Friday.
These are the weeks people like me, and many others, dread – not just for the game of sicky hopscotch, but for the looming presence of our own work do.
If you are with us, you’ll know. Our tribe defines itself by the very fact of not having a tribe. We wander into the pub lunch, the rented function room, the newly Christmassed office, alone, wary and wide-eyed. We hover, we half-laugh, we hide. We arrive too early, too late, are too sober or too drunk, don’t join in enough or join in way too much and retreat home considering a sickie, a resignation, a faked death.
But guess what? You too can be saved. You too can survive this. You can even own this.
Much like cooking Christmas dinner for the family, it’s all in the preparation. Plan, plan and plan some more, and you’ll soon be basking in the warm glow of praise from a room full of people (albeit insultingly surprised people) in awe of your skills.
But wing it, like a carefree soul somehow unencumbered by the weight of societal expectation, and you risk being stuck in festive purgatory, surrounded by those who’d love nothing more than to cast you out but are instead forced to see you on a regular basis. And you’ve disappointed Nan.
So read on for our (tongue-in-cheek) guide to surviving – nay, slaying – the work Christmas do.
1. Realise you’ll never be able to talk to anyone like a proper person
“I dread getting stuck between groups, and not really being part of any of them but making out like I’m participating in them all. And not being able to actually hear anyone and smiling blankly when someone just told me their dog died.”
A familiar tale of woe, given the complex social relationships in your work environment and the inevitably inappropriately banging music of the venue (or worse, the sea of sound that is the loud conversation of people able to socially interact effectively).
Never fear, you CAN prepare for this without resorting to actively participating. Simply take to the mirror for five minutes every morning and practice giving Perfect Face. This do-it-all expression should strike a balance between concerned, amused, outraged, shocked, interested and sympathetic to ensure it applies to literally anything anyone has said, ever.
2. If someone does engage you…
You need an action or sentence for those times where you realise someone is waiting for a response but you have no clue what’s been said because of the noise or because you were busy imagining what you’d be doing if you were at home right now.
Make out like you’re about to answer, then widen your eyes and say, “Oh, God, I’ll be with you in a minute, I’ve just remembered I need to make this call. Argh, sorry, one second…” Then retreat, clutching your phone, to the blessed chill of the air outside. This only works once; use it wisely. After that, you might have to face the utter horror of continuing the interaction by asking them to repeat what they’ve just said.
3. Learn the signs that small talk is imminent
You don’t know who you’ll end up floating next to as you skirt the groups of people who appear to be conversing (whisper it) naturally.
Rather than bluster into one of these with a loud, fake, badly timed bellow of laughter, come to terms with the fact that you will end up in a one-on-one situation at some point, either by someone as awkward and boring as yourself gravitating toward you, or being sat next to the boss of your boss’s boss at lunch.
In this situation, what you don’t want is a blossoming conversation based on mutual interests, complementary personalities and stunning witticisms, resulting in (please God, no) a new friend. What you want is something to shut down any possibility of further talking, stat. Try:
“Why is it that you only get symptoms after the contagious period?”
“The judge says I’m not to stay out, but this is going so well.”
“So. This is Christmas [dull tone, prolonged eye contact].”
4. Plan for the possibility of games
Pass the parcel, karaoke, some godawful game where you have to move an item from person to person using only your knees or some such. No. Even though there’s the possibility of a prize, the fear that you’ll be the only one ‘not joining in’ and the tantalising idea that your performance will elevate your office status, go down in work history and secure you a promotion, I promise you that none of these things are worth it.
The following day, instead of the terrific pleasure of a victory well-earned in front of admiring colleagues, there’ll be a video of you slurring Bright Eyes with an earnest expression that says, “I’m singing this REALLY WELL.” Me, this was me.
You need to put in the groundwork a few days early – weeks, if possible. Fend off karaoke with tales of coughs, colds and sore throats. If you feel you’ll be pulled into it anyway, invest your time wisely by identifying the people likely to jump at the chance and suggesting a group sing, in which you can mouth the words and hide behind their all-consuming confidence.
Nearly all games can be avoided by the rapid onset of illness or injury. Oh man, how you’d love to get involved, but with your hip/ankle/easily spread disease, it’s just not a good idea, you’ll totally be rooting for them all though, go team!
5. Wardrobe malfunctions
This is a terribly overused term, but genuinely applies here: “At a Christmas party a couple of years ago my boob popped out of my dress. I hadn’t even noticed – the manager had to tell me.”
The work Christmas do is a hotbed of sartorial issues, because, let’s face it, it’s likely you’re wearing something that you bought in panic and didn’t road test. It may even be a style you’d never have considered previously because people flustered you with long, repetitive conversations about what they were going to wear.
You think of yourself as a strong, independent woman unswayed by the opinions of others on your outfit choices, but you wobbled, you broke, and now you’ve got bright red, weepy armpits because the makers of clothing stick sequins places they shouldn’t go.
There’s only one solution: “Oh, I totally forgot it was today/tonight, I’ll just have to wear what I’m wearing now.” Done and done.
6. If there’s a dress code…
7. Limit your cash…
Oh wow, everyone’s had a few, you’ve reached hitherto unknown heights of Top Form and isn’t this just the best fun you’ve had in a long time? Why were you so worried about this? Barman, another!
Buying rounds seems like a great idea when you’re a couple in and the office-funded 12 bottles of red for 40 people has run out. But then you wake up the morning after and realise, no, you haven’t made new best friends for life; what you’ve actually done here is buy seven shots for a guy who earns seven times your salary and called you the wrong name for about three hours. That’s it, sorry.
This simmering resentment, when added to your general, long-standing simmering resentment, will grow and grow until it’s the plant from Little Shop of Horrors going full-on “Feed me, Seymour!” Not great for the workplace.
Lock up your cards and take a limited amount of cash (your inherent awkwardness, while temporarily subdued, should still stop you from borrowing any money from someone because you won’t be able to ignore the fact you’ll have to speak to them again at some point).
8. … And your drinks
If you’re a drinker, you may simultaneously dread not having enough drinks (er, how many bottles of wine are provided per table?) but also having too many, oversharing, drunk-dialling someone inappropriate, having a few more too many, refusing to leave then announcing you’re off to die in the snow. You thought your office interactions were awkward before? See how they go after you’ve been tearfully sick over the hors d’oeuvres.
You know how to avoid this.
9. Plot your escape route
Knowing your options ahead of time is vital. You know – you KNOW – what’s it like on a December evening. You’ve been here, remember? The useless waving at full taxis of people going by, happy people, people on their way to their nice warm homes because they Booked. A. Cab. Maybe yesterday, maybe a week ago, maybe only a couple of hours before the party kicked off. But they booked it. And you did not.
And now you’re facing a long walk, a night bus or a lift with someone you’ll have to thank and talk to and probably nod at next time you see them in the office. Well done you.
10. Look at the positives
The office Christmas party is an important form of bonding; a chance to see your colleagues and company in a different light. A chance to get to know them as people, their likes and dislikes, without the context of office drama, deadlines and politics. Everyone has their guard down.
A tip: those people are fools. Don’t let your guard down, ever. Then you can maliciously use the information you gather to protect yourself from future social interactions.
Images: Getty, iStock