In some ways, the holiday office party seems like a social experiment. Behind the glass, some scientist laid out all the familiar trappings of a party – music! food! booze! – but also kept the elements of your professional, high-stakes work life. What a predicament for participants, who must navigate the maze while remaining professional (turn left toward the uber-modest cocktail dress), having a good time (turn right toward the open bar) and not puking on their boss’s shoes (now run away from the open bar).
Employees will find similar roadblocks while chit-chatting at the event. Would the topics typically discussed at a party fly at what’s basically a work function disguised as a party?
Below, career and etiquette experts map out the no-fly zone with 10 things you should absolutely not discuss at your office party:
“What do you think about the situation in Ferguson?” When you find yourself tempted to broach hot-button news topics, hit the breaks and throw it in reverse. “Stay away from anything in the news that’s volatilely charged,” says Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas.
Avoid these news items, not because we shouldn’t be engaged with current events, Gottsman says, but because they can bring out strong, emotional and sometimes combative responses in people – the same people you’ll be in a meeting with Monday morning. “Starting an argument with your co-worker or with your boss is not the theme of the night,” she says. Plus, Gottsman adds, this line of conversation “can just really dampen our holiday spirit.”
“What’s Obama thinking?” Politics, like the news, can be divisive, and the holiday party is about togetherness. Brad Karsh, president of JB Training Solutions, a Chicago-based workplace training and employee development company, puts it like this: “Avoid anything that could be incendiary in any way, shape or form.”
“I had some thoughts on the Penske file.” Think outside the boardroom. Karsh gives the example of a lower-level employee taking advantage of the party atmosphere to “nuzzle up” to a vice president and talk shop. Keep in mind that the VP, he says, has likely “had three glasses of wine and is like, ‘Dude, I do not want to talk about work.’”
It works from the top down, too, he says. Bosses shouldn’t be checking in on their employees’ looming deadlines to the tune of the Mariah Carey Christmas collection. Karsh says the holiday party is “a chance to unwind, relax and talk about other things – hobbies and sports and fun things – not work stuff.”
“I want a raise.” Managers typically promote employees who show good judgment, and blindsiding your boss with salary demands in public, at a party, while scarfing down shrimp cocktail, doesn’t look great. “It’s not the time to be pitching your boss for a raise, a promotion or a change of office space,” Gottsman says. “This is an extension of business, but it’s not the workday.”
“I heard Jim has a thing for Pam.” Yes, that third glass of wine would make you feel warm and chummy enough to talk about who’s hooking up, who’s divorcing, who’s getting promoted and who’s planning to quit. Step back from the bar and “stay focused on where you are,” Gottsman says. You’re at a work function, not your high school cafeteria. “It’s not up to you to dispense office gossip,” she says.
“Yikes, Elaine is a terrible dancer.” Do you really want to be the office Scrooge, critiquing your co-worker’s dance moves or, uh, festive sweater? Steer clear of the Naughty List, and “keep your jabs and snipes to yourself,” Gottsman says.
“So, do you celebrate Christmas?” While it should go without saying, it’s important enough to do so just in case: Do. Not. Discuss. Religion. “If you start making it about religion, it makes people uncomfortable,” Gottsman says. Plus, she points out, “in business, unless you work for a church, religion really isn’t a topic of conversation. It’s a personal matter.”
“Oh man, this hernia is killing me.” Your ailing health, that painful divorce – while these topics are no doubt top of mind for you, try to muster some holiday cheer for this festive occasion. “It’s not necessary to go into grave detail through the buffet line about every little detail that you’re going through,” Gottsman says. “You want to keep the party light.”
“What are you making these days?” Think before you speak, and if while doing so, there’s a fleeting feeling that what you’re about to say is too personal – it is. Along with the fifth boozy beverage, Karsh advises steering clear of asking your co-worker how much he received for his holiday bonus, when he and the wife will have kids and other potential land mines of awkwardness.
“I can’t wait to duck out of here early.” No one is going to be impressed that you have an after-party to attend or if, by your standards, the company’s karaoke competition is lame. Consider how rude these statements may come across to the people who spent time and effort organizing the party. “It’s not important to tell people where you’re going next and how you’re going to leave early,” Gottsman says.
So what are you left to talk about? Below are a few safe – but not stilted – conversation starters.
“I haven’t seen you since the last holiday party. What’s been going on in your life?” If it’s been a spell since you last talked with this co-worker, he or she will surely be able to think of something interesting to debrief you on, Gottsman says. And hopefully the news isn’t hernia-related.
“What are your plans for the holidays?” Gottsman suggests this tame and topical icebreaker that will give plenty of opportunities for asking follow-up questions and finding a common denominator. (“I travel to the Midwest this time of year, too! Are you originally from Indiana?”)
“Did you go to the local holiday festival last weekend?” Bring up “whatever is going on in the news or your community that’s positive,” Gottsman says. Updates on local theater and sports teams and light national news – “did you see who’s playing the Super Bowl halftime show?” – are safe bets, she says.
“Didn’t you go to Ohio University? I love that campus!” If chitchat isn’t your strong suit, or if you simply like being prepared, Karsh suggests picking a few party attendees you plan to speak with and perusing their LinkedIn profiles ahead of time. Find common ground and points of conversation through shared connections, education, work history and other profile sections.
Essentially, Gottsman says, you can’t expect engaging (and inoffensive) conversation to simply come to you, like so many finger foods and chardonnay refills. You have to make an effort, she says. “It’s your responsibility to make yourself interesting.”