Dos and don'ts for your office party

Techies: Office hoilday parties are your opportunity to have a good time with your co-workers! Yes, they're slightly scary. Yes, you can do it wrong. But these guidelines will help you bring the cheer.

sf cityhall

Holiday party glory

In 1999, at the age of 25, I went to my first tech industry holiday party. It was San Francisco in the midst of the dot-com boom, and my employer pulled out all the stops, renting out the gorgeous and recently renovated City Hall (pictured). People dressed up, there was live music, and I felt so awkward I spent a lot of time talking to the valet parking guys.

In retrospect, I wish I had allowed myself to enjoy the experience more: it was over the top and worth soaking in the details.

Corporate holiday party season is now in full swing, and my first word of advice: Don't be like 25-year-old me! I've collected some dos and don'ts from correspondents and experts to help you get through the process.

cavorting goats

DO: Meet new people

One of the things that most freaked me out about that party was all the people -- people from divisions of my large company that I had never met before, and guests from other companies. But if you can handle it, get in there and mingle. "Annual holiday parties are a great time to get to know coworkers from other departments or people who are new to the company," says Lauren Chereskin, Client Services Director at Kapow Events. "Approach a new group and introduce yourself! Networking can be beneficial, even at internal events." Remember, they're more afraid of you than you are of them! No, wait, that's bears. But still: joyous surprises await!

Jon Colgan, founder and CEO of CellBreaker, had an interesting encounter at a Christmas party last year hosted by a well-known tech startup. He was talking to one of their superstar programmers -- about goats, since he had raised them as a side business. "He recounted how this one goat used to head butt him constantly when he wasn't looking, to try to dominate him. So, he said that the only way to counteract this behavior was to saddle the goat, take hold of his horns, and to ride the goat around in front of the herd." The programmer also had a peg leg, which Colgan only noticed when returned from the bathroom with some toilet paper stuck to the bottom of it. If you're too shy to talk to people, you miss these opportunities!

bar fun

DO: Find the bar

Free-flowing alcohol can of course be a minefield at a party -- but a bar can also be a central gathering point for sociability, like a watering hole on the savannah but with a better selection of craft beers. "A holiday party is time to relax with your coworkers," says Chereskin. "Whether you're drinking or not, the bar is an ideal spot to approach someone for a casual conversation. Catching your supervisor as they grab a cocktail allows you to jump in and get the dialogue flowing."

swiss horns

DON'T: Panic when it gets weird

We're not saying booze is the necessary ingredient for every corporate gathering, but consider this anecdote from a reader whose government employer always has dry holiday parties. One co-worker at the party "was a lovely and talented woman who was very proud of her Norwegian heritage and her talents as a mezzo soprano. The sole entertainment for the year was her act with her husband: he played the Norwegian horn (think Ricola commercial) and she sang. Their act finished with a dramatic, operatic, a capella version of 'I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.' Everyone sat silent and still in folding chairs arranged against the walls of the conference room we were in." Whether liquor is available or not, you need to be emotionally prepared for moments like these.

reading room

DO: Read the room

How you react to oddness isn't just up to you, though: you're going to want to match the reactions of your peers, and not come across overly exuberant or boorish. "Some corporate cultures are more easygoing than others," says Chereskin. "Get a feel for how other attendees are conducting themselves and act accordingly." This applies both to your general demeanor and to how you conduct yourself with whichever folks you may find yourself chatting with -- especially if the folks you're chatting with are new to you.

hydra herc

DON'T: Get monomaniacal

For instance, one correspondant who works as an artist at an east coast game studio warns about one tech-industry-party social archetype: the Information Hydra. "This person wants to talk to you about the thing they like, and if you admit to not knowing what they're talking about, they will break the subject down into several need-to-know background explanations, rather than politely changing the subject. 'Oh, you don't play that game? Well, it's basically a MOBA combined with topdown shooter and Metroidvania elements. Oh, you don't know what a MOBA is? So, in 1997, the modding community for Warcraft 3 was really big, and... well, I'm sure you remember how much everybody loved the Moon Queen. No? Oh, man, okay then...'" Read the room to make sure you're not getting too hydra-y, is our advice.

tuxedo dude

DO: Dress for (partying) success

Jon Colgan didn't notice his goat-dominator's artificial leg at first because of the party's ugly holiday sweater dress code: the programmer-herdsman was wearing "a floor-length ugly sweater -- sort of like a cross between a cardigan and a trench coat." Not the sort of thing you'd wear every day, but perfect for the situation. "Give the dress code on the invite some consideration," says Chereskin. "Don't be afraid to be festive, but don't go overboard. When in doubt err on the side of conservative, but stay sharp."


DON'T: Gawk at people who have dressed nicely

For women in tech, though, this can be something of a minefield. "The biggest, weirdest thing I see at holiday parties, though, is [men's] interaction with women," says the east-coast video game artist. "Women cannot catch a break from their male coworkers at holiday parties, or any other time they choose to dress up, for that matter. It's kind of okay to acknowledge when a female coworker looks nice (though you really shouldn't, unless you're besties), but it's not okay to act like you're at Junior Prom. I'll see guys standing literally slack-jawed, marveling at a lead programmer's ability to wear her hair in a different style than she does at work. It's just an updo, guys. We've had the hairpin technology for years."

whiteboard tree
Meagan Rhodes

DO: Be prepared to bond

If you can master your basic social skills, holiday gatherings can be a way to discover how well you know these people you've spent eight hours or more a day with for who knows how long. Meagan Rhodes, a digital marketer for @Pay, described the Secret Santa exchange at her office, with gifts stacked beneath a magic marker Christmas tree drawn on a dry-erase board usually used for coding. "After unwrapping gifts, we had a funny moment where we all correctly guessed who gave us our gift. The gifts were so incredibly thoughtful and often based off of recent conversations, so it was actually easy to realize who gave you a gift. It was a great laugh!" With any luck, you've got co-workers that you've bonded with enough to make the party go smoothly.

office party

DON'T: Blow the company's budget

One of the main reasons I regret not spending more time reveling in that 1999 party more: it was, unbeknownst to us all, the end of an era of dot-com excess. A few months later the Nasdaq had cratered and the retrenchment in the tech industry began. My company's 2000 holiday party was a sedate affair held in our office, which I didn't bother going to; by May of 2001, most of us had been laid off. The tech industry has gone through boom and bust since, but if I have one final piece of advice, it's this: don't feel like you have to spend a million dollars just to have a good time. I've thrown my own freelance home office Christmas parties, and they've been great fun without breaking the bank.