Ah, December. I happen to celebrate – and really like – Christmas, but I'm not immune to holiday stress. What's not to love about this time of year, really? The flu season? Dealing with travel logistics? Explaining to extended family members that my marital status is none of their business? Facebook arguments about religion and consumerism? It's enough to make me want to curl up in my bedroom and listen to Pet Sounds (which I maintain is a perfect Christmas album, at least if you're prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder) until the vernal equinox.
And then there are holiday parties—specifically, work-sponsored ones. Some people love them, some people hate them, some people skip them and some people can't get enough. I have, at different points in my career, been all of these people. The same goes with after-work happy hours (which were popular at a couple of my former workplaces), networking events for freelancers (which I attend regularly, and which are always held in bars) and parties to celebrate work milestones like product or issue launches.
I've been the coworker who never missed a chance to drink with coworkers and I've been the one who hated my job so much that the last thing I wanted to do at the end of the day was spend more time with my coworkers. That turned out to be a mistake, though: at my first job out of college, the occasional beer with coworkers kept me sane, but it took me a year to even consider it. One coworker there said I seemed "stuffy" to her, which would have been hilarious to the staff and volunteers at my next job. I drank with them regularly and developed a rep as something of a party girl. During the day, I fended off sexist comments and had to fight to be respected; being known as cool, fun and likeable probably worked against me.
A massively unfair catch-22, that: skipping the office Christmas party and keeping your head down at work can get you the wrong reputation in the office, but so can being known as the lampshader. (While men aren't immune to this kind of gossip, I frankly don't hear nearly as much murmured concern that the guy who got too lit last weekend might be a little more committed to the good life than he is to his job.)
And drinking with coworkers can be awkward from a class perspective too: Just as the amount you drink can get you tagged with a certain reputation, so can what you drink, and how much you know about it. (Once a supervisor invited some folks from the department to a "wine and cheese party" which I assumed would be pretty informal, but it turned out to be a formal tasting, led by the boss, in which we spit into really expensive-looking chalices and talked about what other expensive wines we liked, about which I had no data. I learned a couple of things, but wasn't prepared for the formality of the occasion, and probably look about as relaxed as Richard Nixon at a key party.)
I don't normally use this space to dispense advice, but it took me long enough to find some balance when it came to socializing in general (and drinking in particular) with coworkers that I feel like passing on what I've learned. Apart from knowing your limit and drinking a little less than that (particularly important when drinking with the boss), also remember:
You don't have to go to every event where you're invited. This is hard for me to remember, partly because of the amount of social coercion that can happen in our culture – my favorite example of which is a coworker saying, "Aw, we can get you a straw!" when I declined an invite to happy hour because my face was still numb from the dentist. Recognize that coworkers who try to badger you into going out when you don't feel like it, drinking when you don't want to, or having just one more when you're ready to go home are jerks at worst. At best, they are just making conversation, and don't actually care what you do all that much. You're not actually going to break anybody's heart because you don't want to drool gin all over yourself, right in front of your new officemates. (Not that I caved and did precisely that. Ahem. Do as I say, not as I did, basically.)
I had a boss once whose rule for workplace parties was: No talking about work. It's generally a good rule (unless you're actually at a networking event, in which case you should come prepared to talk about what you're working on and what your goals are), but can be tough to avoid when you're surrounded by people you work with. My rule for discussing work with coworkers, exterior to work – particularly if I'm annoyed about something that happened recently – is to set a mental timer wherein I'm allowed to vent, and then move on. Otherwise I end up dwelling and it sucks the fun out of my night – and everyone else's, too.
Sometimes seeing coworkers let their guard down can be hilarious, and sometimes it can be really unsettling, like when your boss makes a racist or homophobic joke or your coworker decides to grope you in the coat room. Know that harassment that happens at work-sponsored parties is still harassment, and your colleagues and company are still liable should they violate your workplace's policies. Should something go really awry, do whatever you need to do to stay safe in your immediate situation, and contact HR immediately.
If the event you're going to (wine tasting, visit to a tap room, tasting in a spirits room) intimidates you, you can just skip it. Alternatively, do a little homework and go with an open mind. I also recommend bringing a friend who is more knowledgeable about the booze being sampled, but who won't talk down or roll her eyes if you're not sure how to react when everyone else is murmuring, "This tastes really manure-y. I love it!"
If you screw up – if you drop an F-bomb at your boss or go make out with your coworker's housemate or throw up or something – don't beat yourself up. Don't pretend it didn't happen, and talk to the people you need to talk to about it, but don't assume it's the end of the world, either. It also helps to assume everybody else was either too drunk or too self-conscious to even notice what you were doing, because this is often the case. And remember: everybody has embarrassing work-event stories, and now you've got yours.
I'm curious about how other people have survived work holiday parties – including teetotalers and folks in recovery. How do you deal with pushy or inappropriate coworkers or bosses? How much do you worry about staying professional, though you're off the clock?