Surviving The Office Party

The memo will be coming any day now. The words "Office Holiday Party'' will be splashed across the top, next to a collage of cheery holiday symbols (snow, Santa, and the Star of David will do in most offices). The memo will contain an earnest extension of good holiday wishes. It will give a time and place for the bash, urge responsible drinking, and promise the opportunity "to get to know your colleagues in a non-work setting.'' The event will be much-anticipated. After a whole year spent mastering the delicate art of office coexistence, the holiday party represents the chance to break free from the shackles of professional conduct. On the surface, the beauty of the office party is that it's no longer defined by the workplace. The implicit mandate is simple: just relax and have fun, even if it kills you. But this is a more complicated affair than it would seem. After all, office life has sort of a special, cozy quality about it. We each have a few "office friends,'' we carve out our own "office space'' and we basically cultivate a well-defined "office persona'' all year. Throw these finely-developed constructs into a single room, however, break down the prescribed barriers, add booze to the mix, and you get a very odd clash between professional and social dynamics. To move through the morass with dignity intact and emerge with a job on Monday morning can be as challenging as the daily grind. Underlying weird office-party dynamics is one undeniable fact: quite often, office minions have little in common besides a copying machine. There is, after all, a reason that your discussions with half the staff rarely get beyond the Tao of toner. But come the office party, the rules change. This is a one-shot deal, and on this enchanted evening, water-cooler superficiality just won't do. You have time, and are encouraged, to delve beyond the cordial workaday world into the uncharted realm of actual personal relationships. And anything is possible. Like sex. Indeed, a lot's been written in the wake of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill affair about the fine line between flirtation and harassment. The holiday office party, replete with booze and devoid of spouses, can make for a precarious situation; there's no shortage of horror stories about drunken bosses chasing terrified underlings around the buffet table to bear that out. Party-goer Rule #1: don't cross any boundaries you wouldn't cross in the office. The office party can engender a dangerous pseudo-egalitarianism that, truth be told, doesn't exist in most offices. While you may be sporting the same party hat as your boss (or your employee), while you may share a common social ground,don't forget that this lasts for only a few hours. Come Monday morning, the office totem pole--and protocol--will be firmly back in place. Accordingly, it's not a good idea at office parties to launch into loud discussions of your personal problems, the conditions of your parole, or your sexual fantasies. You can let your hair down, but only so far. On the other hand, do take note of Party-goer Rule #2: it is possible to have a good time. A good many office denizens canvassed for this article genuinely like their office parties. They emphasize that it gets easier with time in a given office. And the key to survival, they say, is not to get caught up in the great possibilities of the situation, no to buy into the notion that the rules are any different, and not to forget that everything will return to normal on Monday. Unless you do something stupid. "I will approach it as I do a large family gathering,'' says one office expert. "I carve out my space, drink a lot, and play not to lose. It's the perfect survival mode.'' Party-goer Rule #3: be clannish. In other words, abandon the notion that anything is possible. This is not "L.A. Law'''s McKenzie-Brackman, after all. You are not Victor Sifuentes, and that most certainly is not Gracie in a Santa outfit. Fall into what's by far the most popular survival M.O.: find your friends, carve out some space near the bar, and talk about--what else--work. Yes, in an ideal world, governed by the spiritual tenets of personnel managers, office workers would follow their sixth senses, and gravitate naturally to new friends. If there were more than one office party a year, perhaps office denizens would have a greater stake in forging (as opposed to forcing) cross-departmental relationships. But in these situations, people tend to go with what they know, and accordingly, a predictable love affair with the familiar--clumps of department-mates everywhere you look--is played out annually. It may not be quite what personnel had in mind, but cope before you mope. That, by the way, leads us into a quick memo for management: don't tamper with the delicate balance of office ecology. Let the center hold. Get too aggressive in these situations and you court disaster. Consider the experience of a real-life lawyer (not a McKenzie-Brackman lawyer) at his firm's holiday party last year. Three-hundred-odd people were crammed into a hotel function room. Then, a zealous "team builder'' instituted a series of closely-monitored games designed to help every party-goer meet and get to know a "new'' person. After roughly 60 minutes, the game broke down. Then, just as morale had reached an all-time low, a senior partner led the room in a toast to God, country, and firm. A that point, a small group in the corner raised a hearty toast to Party-goer Rule #4, the most pivotal survival tool of them all: the open bar is your friend. Take comfort in it as you see fit.

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