"The one good thing about this jacked-up economy," a friend wryly noted, "is I think they're going to cancel the office holiday party.."
Talk about your silver linings!
It doesn't matter whether you're treated to a five-course dinner at a spiffy restaurant or Cheez Whiz on Ritz crackers—what happens at the office holiday party can affect your professional life well into the next year. To keep yourself out of the minefield that's packaged as holiday merriment, remember: The important word in the phrase "office holiday party" is office. In other words, it's still work, just in dressier clothes and with liquor.
If (thanks to a nonrefundable deposit that was made way back in the summer) yours is one of those offices that is still hosting a festive get-together to mark the season, here are some tips on how to manage the gathering:
Do I Have To Go?
It's work, remember? And if you work in a place where you're One of the Few (that's anything that represents the non-majority in your office), your absence will be duly noted. So mark your calendar and plan to be there. It's what, maybe four hours out of your life? So go, already; you'll probably enjoy it more than you think you will. The exception to the gotta-go rule: If the party is held someplace that employs discriminatory practices—the dining room in a club that excludes, blacks, women, Jews, etc. (yes, there still are some places like this), feel free to skip it and tell your boss why. They'll probably choose the venue more carefully next year. If they have a party next year.
What Do I Wear?
Dress festively, but not the same way you would for a night out on the town with your friends. If you've worked hard at the gym all year and want to show off your new form, do it in a dress that's pretty but not provocative. That black jersey wrap that shows off your Michelle Obama-like arms? Go for it! That thigh-high gold sheath with the butt cleavage that looks like you cruised Lil' Kim's closet? This ain't the time or the place.
Who Do I Bring?
If you're allowed to bring a guest, bring someone who will enjoy meeting your colleagues and who will be discreet enough to remember the gossip you've shared while connecting the dots mentally, rather than out loud. On the way home—not while shaking said person's hand—is the time for your guest to shout, "That was the guy who ran away with the head of ad sale's wife? You are kidding!" As for spouses, they have to go and behave. Preferably charmingly.
Can I Drink?
Sure—as long as you drink very modestly and make your drink last a very long time. Some people self-impose a two-drink maximum. We all know that interesting, sometimes disastrous, things happen when office politics mixes with liberal quantities of alcohol. Far better to drink less and be one of the people who remembers the fool who re-created the Madonna-Britney smooch on the dance floor with the boss's wife, instead of being one of the smoochers in question. Oh yes, and stay away from the karaoke machine. Chances are close to 100 percent that you do not sound like Whitney Houston. Save your "I'm Every Woman/ I Will Always Love You" medley for the shower.
What If Someone Says or Does Something That's Totally Out?
Repeat: Alcohol and office politics are a dangerous mixture. Some people will ignore the two-drink maximum and visit the bar several times ('cause it's free, right?) and then make all sorts of untoward remarks, some confessional ("You're so lucky—I've always wished I had boobs like yours. What are you, a double-D?"); some proclamational ("You know, if all black people could be like you and your gal, the race problem would be fixed. I could talk to you guys all night."). Pull out your "gotta-find-a-bathroom" card (drunks never argue with that), flee quickly and find a sober colleague to hang out with. You'll have more fun anyway, because you can talk about all the drunk folks together.
Do I Have To Stay Till The End?
Usually, no. If you arrive at the end of drinks, stay for dinner and quietly slip away soon after, you've done your duty. (If people beg you to stay, you can always murmur something about needing to relieve the babysitter if you have children, or breakfast with out-of-town friends the next day.) Whenever you're back in the office, remember to thank whoever was responsible for the evening.
Then pat yourself on the back for being a good employee and relax until next year. Because if the economy bounces back, you'll probably have to do it again.
Karen Grigsby Batesis a Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR News and the co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The New Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times (Doubleday, 2006).
is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR News and co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The New Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times (Doubleday).