December 9, 2009

How to Mix and Mingle Your Way Through the Dreaded Holiday Party

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Holiday parties are supposed to be fun. We get to dress up in our schmanciest duds and sparkliest jewelry, indulge in fine wines and hors d’oeuvres, and meet fascinating new people. Oh yeah, that thing about meeting new people – it’s not so much fun as it is intimidating and anxiety-inducing.

Many of us dread attending parties, especially those where we don’t know anyone... like the holiday party hosted by your partner’s company. During the holidays, this dread is intensified by the increasing stress of responsibilities like travel, gift shopping, and year-end work matters. We may find it difficult to embrace the festive spirit when a workplace party is a requirement of the season.

Still, whether you work for the company hosting the party or you’re a guest of an employee, it’s absolutely possible to manage your anxiety, let go of your fear, and genuinely enjoy yourself. Here’s how.

How to be a good host to your guest

If you bring a guest to the party, whether it’s your spouse or a casual date, it’s your responsibility to make sure she has a good time. Make sure your guest has a drink and food. Don’t leave her sitting alone while you chat with your coworkers. Make an effort to bring up non-work topics of conversation. And always introduce your guest to the people you know.

Share a little about the person you’re introducing, so your partner can put faces with names: “Amy, this is Mark from HR. He’s the one who always e-mails me those hilarious videos I’ve told you about.” This creates instant familiarity and helps your guest feel more at ease with people you’ve mentioned before.

What if you’ve forgotten someone’s name? That’s no excuse! Here are two ways to handle it gracefully.

1) Be honest with the coworker. Tell him that his name has slipped your mind. We’re all human and we all forget things; he’ll understand. If you say it with some self-deprecating humor, even better: “I’m sorry – I’m blanking on your name right now. Too much binge drinking in college.”

2) If the honest approach makes you uncomfortable, try introducing your partner first; your coworker will likely introduce himself. You say, “Have you met my girlfriend Amy?” Your coworker responds by extending his hand and saying, “Hi, I’m Jason.” Smooth!

How to be a good guest

You may be attending the party alone and know only the people in your department, or you may be the guest of an employee and not know anyone at all, but before the end of the evening, you might make a new friend or business contact. Just follow the tips below.

Ask your date or someone you know to introduce you to people at the party. Let him know before you arrive that you’d appreciate some introductions. Your date may assume you already know people, or just forget to introduce you.

The quickest way to get over party stage fright is to be the first one to say hello. Put out your hand and say, “Hi, I’m Jennifer, John’s wife.” Once the ice is broken, that feeling of standing there awkwardly while people chatter around you will fade away.

Remember, you don’t have to be confident to appear confident. Put on a smile and give a firm handshake. The more you practice presenting yourself as confident and assertive, the more you will start to feel confident and assertive.

When the person you’re meeting tells you his name, really listen. Don’t be planning the next thing you’re going to say. Repeat his name back to him ("Hi, Jason"). This will improve your chances of remembering his name the next time you see him.

When you sit down for dinner, you’ll eventually have to talk to someone besides your date. An effective way to connect with your neighbor is to ask questions. People love talking about themselves, and you might find you have things in common. Just be careful not to interrogate your neighbor or monopolize the conversation.

One open-ended question (that doesn’t lead to a “yes” or “no” answer) can keep a discussion going for quite a while, especially if you look for cues to lead you to the next question. If she mentions something about children, say, “Tell me about your kids.” If she mentions something about work, ask, “How long have you worked here?”

Plan ahead for some safe, easy topics of conversation:

~ The party (“The desserts look amazing . . . what are you going to have?”)
~ Local events (“I have a ton of holiday shopping still to do – any good craft fairs in town?”)
~ Travel (“What travel plans do you have for the holidays?”)
~ Background (“How long have you lived in Santa Barbara... what brought you here?”)
~ Hobbies (“John tells me that you collect Monty Python memorabilia; how did you get started?”)

Be prepared to explain your own profession concisely and clearly, as you likely will be asked. Bring business cards; someone you meet at the party may turn out to be a future business ally.

And no matter what, do not make fun of or share secrets about your partner as a way of bonding with his coworkers!

Tips for both host and guest

Greet and thank your party host upon arrival. This is a perfect time to practice introductions.

Smile -- be friendly -- make eye contact -- shake hands.

Don’t use the occasion to gripe to coworkers about your company. It may come back to you – with consequences.

If you're the guest who doesn't know anyone, don't sulk. Make an effort.

Drink lightly or not at all. Alcohol is frequently used as a “social lubricant” to relieve stress and make social interaction more comfortable – but alcohol can quickly shift from social lubricant to an excuse to act inappropriately.

Finally, take a deep breath and relax. Be yourself and show an interest in other people, and you might find yourself making merry at a holiday party this season.

This post was inspired by the "Public Speaking and The Holidays" blog carnival hosted by Angela DeFinis!

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8 comments. Please add yours! :

Business Communication said...

Fun and timely read! Thanks for this, Lisa!

Lisa Braithwaite said...

You're welcome -- and thanks for your comment, as always!

Unknown said...

Very helpful, thanks!

Lisa Braithwaite said...

I'm glad you found it helpful, Cynthia!

Michael Cortes said...

"Plan ahead for some safe, easy topics of conversation" Seems that any awkward situation can be alleviated a bit by planning ahead.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

So true, Michael. I talked about this with my new coaching group last night. Everyone hates going around the room and introducing themselves; however, if everyone just took a few minutes to plan in advance for what they want to say, so much of that anxiety would be alleviated. Yes, just for an introduction. Preparation makes everything smoother!

Mohan Arun said...

The list of 'safe,easy' topics of conversation that you have provided is very good as a starting point... But as for questions regarding employment something like 'How long have you worked here' if someone were to ask me this question and he/she is not a recruiter or an interviewer, I would feel this is indicative of an inquisitive or over-curious conversationist who is trying to maintain a conversation.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Mohan, that question is meant for people at a workplace function, where they may not have met all their coworkers before. There's nothing inappropriate about it.

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