Ping! An invitation lands in your inbox. Open it and you’ll find details of that event that comes but once a year: the office Christmas party.
Perhaps it’s low-key, like a night in your team’s usual drinks haunt, or a lunch in the pub round the corner. Maybe it’s a full-on formal affair in a fancy venue. Maybe management are just really keen to manage expectations. I’ll never forget an absolute downer of an email spelling out the party rules ahead of our big end-of-year blowout at a North London Wetherspoons: we were banned from ordering anything involving “spirits, shots or bubbles”. Tidings of comfort and joy indeed.
Whatever the set-up, though, the annual work Christmas bonanza can be a social minefield. Take tens or even hundreds of people, connected only by their shared nine-to-five slog and some festering resentments, and add a bit too much alcohol: what could possibly go wrong? Whether you’re a party animal or cynical Scrooge, here’s our guide to surviving it with your dignity (and career) just about intact.
Don’t be the first or last to leave
This is perhaps the golden rule of the office Christmas party. Make an early dash immediately after you’ve downed your complimentary welcome drink and everyone will inevitably remark on how keen you were to get away (and you’ll get further black marks against your name if you spent all your time banging on about how many other festive events you had to squeeze into this one night – no one likes a performative socialiser). Stay until the lights come on and there’s a high chance you’ll end up humiliating yourself in some way, or getting mired in drunken conversation with the very person you’ve been trying to avoid all night. Finding a good middle ground is key. No one can begrudge you for leaving around 10pm: you’ve put a decent shift in and hopefully your hangover won’t be too bad if you race home and neck some water.
Get a decent lunch beforehand
At the risk of sounding like your mum: please, please eat something substantial. In the rush to get everything finished in time for the evening do’s kick-off, it’s all too easy to neglect your lunch, grabbing a few rushed bites of a sandwich or grazing on the festive snacks that your keenest colleague has bought to “get everyone feeling Christmassy”. But a disappointing Pret salad at midday followed by half of a bottle of wine come 6pm is an absolute recipe for disaster. The best-case scenario is you’ll fall asleep, the worst is you’ll end up doing a monologue about some niche office politics. Or crying. Or singing. Make the time to eat a proper lunch, ideally involving carbohydrates, even if there will allegedly be food on offer at the party. (If it’s nice, it’ll be snapped up within moments, leaving you with a few stone-cold chips). This is especially important if you’ve got specific dietary requirements (take it from someone who has attended too many parties where the only thing that’s vegan is the wine).
Dress up – but don’t go all out
A word of sartorial advice: call me a killjoy, but most of the outfits you’ll find in the “Christmas party” section of your favourite online shopping destination are far too glittery, feathery or riddled with confusing cut-outs to wear to a work event. You’ll just end up feeling self-conscious or batting off bizarre comments from well-meaning but slightly pissed colleagues. I made the foolish mistake of wearing a furry coat to Christmas drinks a few days after the release of the ill-fated Cats film, and was asked if I’d come dressed as Judi Dench’s character. I couldn’t look at said coat in the same way again. Just go with something nice that you’ve worn before, so you know you’ll be comfortable. And if you wear make-up, again, stick to what you know. A colleague and I once decided to get a pre-party makeover at a counter in one of the big department stores. Instead of being dazzled by our newly acquired radiance, everyone made snide remarks about our “bold new look” for the night; my co-worker ended up tearing off her false eyelashes at the bar “because they made [her] look like Jafar from Aladdin”.
Stay off social media
Put down the iPhone. Do you really need a mirror selfie with the person who always fixes your laptop? Or an awkwardly posed picture by the festive flower wall with your boss and their boss? The chances are that unless your colleagues are your actual, hang-out-outside-of-work besties, you’ll probably cringe when you look back at the array of slightly blurry snaps the next day. As for those Instagram Stories capturing the “atmosphere”? It’s worth bearing in mind that all parties look at least 40 per cent more naff when posted in five-second increments on social media, and they’ll seem yet more underwhelming when you view them back in a mild panic in the morning. Plus, there’s also the risk that you’ll inadvertently broadcast someone doing something untoward and ruin their reputation/career prospects /marriage (delete as appropriate) in the process. And if you can’t bear not to document the evening for your devoted followers? Don’t, whatever you do, tag the official company account, unless you want to give the poor social media manager a panic attack.
Don’t start raising your grievances (or making false promises)
It’s the Christmas party, not a development review with booze. It’s not the time or place to collar your boss and start moaning about why your promised pay rise is missing in action or the fact that a 22-year-old graduate has been given the job title you slogged away for years to earn. The opposite also applies: if you’re a manager, don’t make grandiose claims about the good things that are coming down the pipeline for your poor, naive junior staff who don’t know that it’s just the mulled wine talking. In fact, it’s best to avoid talking shop at all: there’s far too much room for misinterpretation when everyone’s senses have been befuddled by prosecco and Michael Bublé on repeat.
Venture outside your clique
’Tis the season to be sociable. As tempting as it is to sit in a corner with your confidantes, raising your eyebrows at the scene unfolding in front of you, it’s best to do a quick circuit of the room early in the night, when everyone is more compos mentis. Channel your inner minor royal: a few generic comments here, some low-stakes pleasantries there, before politely moving on. But don’t get too caught up in your social whirl: if you find yourself at a secondary location with a bunch of strangers, you have probably taken it too far. After one daytime company bash, a group of colleagues, all of us relatively junior editorial staff in our early twenties, ended up in the Westfield Stratford Nando’s with a man from the commercial department called Chris. None of us knew why he was there, or confessed to inviting him along, or even remembered how he had come to be in our orbit at the party. Cue a very strange and sobering dinner, with Chris silently demolishing a butterfly chicken doused in peri peri. We never saw him again.
Temporarily embrace the organised fun
As a dyed-in-the-wool cynic who is allergic to the words “ice-breaker game”, “escape room” and “crazy golf”, I’m pained to even type this. But the work Christmas party is the one day of the year when you just have to go with the organised fun. Get involved with the quiz. Sing “Fairytale of New York” on karaoke. Try to enjoy whatever niche “sport” you’ve been strong-armed into playing (urban axe throwing, anyone?) No one wants to get a reputation as the office Scrooge.
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