As the holidays approach, unpleasant memories of last year’s office holiday party may still linger in many of our minds. Who can forget when Julian from accounting told the vice president of finance that he was bored with accounting, hated everyone in the department, and wanted to get into operations? (The VP certainly hasn’t forgotten.) And remember how awkward it felt when Sarah from marketing cornered you by the punch bowl and wouldn’t stop talking to you (loudly!) about the rumors surrounding a coworker’s recent absence? Or the discomfort you felt when you couldn’t recall Bill’s name as you attempted to introduce him to your boss?
If thoughts of this year’s party make you uneasy, says Geoffrey Tumlin, you’re not alone. For many, the office holiday party is an anxiety-provoking festival of faux pas, awkwardness, and other embarrassments. It’s the one party of the year that we can’t wait to end.
“Because of the awkward conversations, forgotten names, and a handful of inebriated coworkers, office holiday parties often create as much stress as they are supposed to relieve,” says Tumlin, author of the new book Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life.
“The reasons these parties are so stressful are simple. In many organizations, the company holiday party is one of the few times of the year—and possibly the only time—when large groups of employees get together socially. The unusual nature of the gathering—there’s often an audience, you’re moving from person to person, and you’re making much more small talk than usual—presents communication challenges that more routine workplace communication doesn’t.
“The key to successfully navigating the office holiday party is to play a defensive game,” asserts Tumlin. “Stop thinking about growing your network at the holiday party and start thinking about protecting the network you’ve already got in place by minimizing the chance of getting tangled up in awkward or embarrassing conversations.”
Here, Tumlin shares five ways to avoid trouble at this year’s company holiday party.
Embargo the eggnog. The lubricating effect of alcohol is largely responsible for many holiday office-party communication disasters. It was the cause of Matt’s disclosure of inappropriate office gossip during the party of 2010, for Jim complaining a bit too loudly about your boss back in 2011, and for Julian the accountant blabbing to the VP of finance that he wanted a more exciting career during last year’s party.
“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,” says Tumlin. “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.”