Five Tips for Surviving the Office Holiday Party

by Geoffrey Tumlin
Mouthpeace Consulting LLC

How to navigate conversational awkwardness during this year’s holiday party…

As the holidays approach, unpleasant memories of last year’s office holiday party may still linger in our minds. Who can forget when Julian from accounting told the vice president of finance he was bored with accounting, hated everyone in the department, and wanted to get into operations? (The VP certainly hasn’t.) And remember how awkward it felt when Sarah from marketing cornered you by the punchbowl 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, you’re not alone. 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. 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. Stop thinking about growing your network, 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 are 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 2012, 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. 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.

But what if your boss is pressuring you to drink? There’s no easy answer, but you do have options. You can get a drink and nurse it, or say you need to say hello to someone. Or you might say that you don’t feel like drinking—either because you don’t feel well, or simply because you just don’t want to drink on this occasion.

Avoid the person who’s had too much to drink as much as you can. Communication is much more unpredictable when people have had a few drinks, and there’s much more downside than upside when inhibitions are loosened in a professional setting.

Master the exit. The graceful exit is another highly effective strategy. Knowing how to extract yourself from awkward or embarrassing conversations minimizes trouble and shortens problematic interactions at the company party.

You can tactfully break contact by excusing yourself to the food line or restroom, or by saying that you need to say hello to someone. But if someone is causing a disruption that’s leaking out to other people, don’t worry about being tactful—just make a quick exit.

Break contact with people who are disrupting the party ASAP. Don’t worry about following social etiquette if someone has already thrown good manners to the wind. He’s already abandoned normal social behavior, so you don’t owe him the courtesy of a tactful exit.

Invest five minutes in recalling names. No one likes to draw a blank on a name we should have known. Fortunately, you can avoid many uncomfortable moments by recalling, just before the party starts, the names of people you expect to see. Take five minutes before the party to think through the names of people likely to be there. It’s a simple but powerful way to decrease the number of times you blank on a name you should have known.

If you end up stumped on a name, ask early in the conversation for the name you can’t recall. Say something like “Please tell me your name again” as soon as you realize you’ve forgotten it. The longer a conversation goes, the more awkward it becomes to ask for a name that isn’t on the tip of your tongue.

But what about the dreaded party introduction, when your spouse or a colleague is standing beside you and a third person—whose name you’ve forgotten—is clearly expecting an introduction? Don’t sweat it. There’s an easy solution to this common dilemma…

Partner up smartly. You can eliminate the dreaded party introduction—and a number of other awkward incidents—by establishing a few conversational moves with your spouse or a partner beforehand.

Develop a plan with your spouse or the coworker with whom you’re attending the party to introduce themselves whenever you hesitate for a moment upon encountering someone new. This will trigger a reciprocal introduction and, crucially, produce the name you can’t recall. Once you have the name, you can always apologize for not introducing the other person. You might say, “I’m sorry, Jim, I should have introduced you two,” or “My apologies, I thought you knew each other.”

A good partner can get you out of all kinds of party jams. He or she can be the person who asks for both of you to be excused from an awkward or dwindling conversation by suggesting you head to the food or drink line, or by asking to be introduced to your boss. Use your partner to give you the reasonable excuses you need to tactfully get out of conversations.

Don’t disguise stalking as networking. It’s a good idea to offer holiday greetings to your colleagues, direct reports and your boss, but don’t seek out all of the head honchos. The most senior people often get hounded by people currying favor at the holiday party. If a natural conversation emerges, that’s great, but don’t stand in line to talk to someone you barely know. She’s probably trying to enjoy the party and would almost certainly prefer to be left alone. Greet your boss and, perhaps, your boss’s boss. After that, relax and be open to any other conversations that may come your way.

Scale back your expectations about the company holiday party. Worry less about who you need to meet and what you need to say, and focus on minimizing awkward conversations and enjoying as much of the gathering as you possibly can.

The office holiday party shouldn’t be something we dread. This year, lay off the juice, master the exit, review a few names, partner up smartly and think about the party as a celebration and not as a Santa-themed networking event. With a little bit of luck, this year’s company holiday party might even be enjoyable.iBi

Geoffrey Tumlin is the founder and CEO of Mouthpeace Consulting LLC and author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life. Visit for more information.