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Think you hate parties on principle? It’s time for an attitude adjustment. Tips on maneuvering the shoals of the in-person holiday party.

‘Tis the season, and one of the challenges for making it to January 2 is to survive the holiday party. Like holiday treats, professional parties come in several flavors. Different types present different opportunities and impediments.

Wait, What About COVID?

We’re not out of COVID-19 yet. Especially if you have immune system or other susceptibility issues, bow out. No party is worth the risk.

The logistics of the party may further affect your decision about whether to attend and whether to wear a mask. Some organizations are choosing outdoor venues or at least spaces with plenty of room for guests to socially distance. That doesn’t sound like much of a party if you can’t clink glasses. Regardless of the setting, take a COVID test before the party to make sure you’re not infectious.

Some companies and firms are holding remote parties. Virtual cocktails don’t really work for many of us. Too many Brady Bunch boxes on the screen makes it hard to interact or converse. Some marketing consultants say there is value to having your name appear in the participant list. But sometimes there is no participant list. Make sure your square shows your name and some contact information, such as “Theodore (Ted) Smith – Jackson & Jackson.”

Health issues aside, if you think you hate parties on principle, it’s time for an attitude adjustment. On to maneuvering the shoals of in-person events.

Your Own Organization’s Party

Attendance here may be mandatory. Some firms invite clients; some hold employee-only celebrations. In any variation, if your health permits, it’s a good idea to go. Showing your face reminds everyone who you are. This might be a first chance to meet certain people. The informal atmosphere may allow a conversation you couldn’t have virtually or at the office.

Know the dress code. If you need a tuxedo, buy or rent one. No, your black suit isn’t good enough. On the other hand, you don’t want to be overdressed. [Tom Hanks’ party outfit in the movie “Big” comes to mind.] Ask advice from others who have attended in years past, then dress to impress. Wear comfortable shoes.

Industry Gatherings

One of the reasons you participate in an industry organization is to raise your profile and network. The holiday party lets you do that times ten.

Everyone is happy and convivial. Keep the conversation light. Remember whom you talk to for follow-up later, but don’t be pushy about business issues or distributing your business card. Take a break from conversations to make some notes for yourself. (“Women Rainmakers’ Best Marketing Tips” has more suggestions about how to work a room on pages 116-124.)

Lawyer Gatherings

The [fill in the blank] Bar Association is having its annual holiday party. Should you go? If you’re an officer or committee chair, the answer is “unquestionably.” You are co-hosting.

If you covet a leadership position, you should also definitely attend. Charm your listeners with your brilliant ideas and repartee. This is the place to diplomatically corral the chair of the CLE committee to promote your program at which you would be a star speaker. This is the place to get noticed for a plum future assignment on an influential committee, maybe even one that includes funding for attendance at posh locales. Don’t forget to follow up.

What will happen at this fete? Is this an opportunity to develop referral relationships? Is there an educational component? Maybe it’s a chance to schmooze with old friends and classmates. Figure out why you should go to this event, and then plan a strategy to make it happen.

General Advice and Party Etiquette

Silence your phone before the party begins.

You don’t want your ringtone interrupting a conversation, nor do you want everyone turning to hear who was so gauche as to set off this noise. If it’s important, the caller will leave a message. Check your device once the current interaction has ended. (It might be the senior partner — or your spouse.)

Drink and eat carefully.

Most holiday parties include alcohol. That may be an unlimited hosted bar, cash bar, or tickets with entry and cash thereafter. Regardless of the pecuniary aspect of how drinks are served, do not overindulge. Preserve your professionalism by limiting your intake to no more than two drinks. Sip a glass of sparkling water or club soda with a lime in it, and you will look like the life of the party while staying in complete control.

Don’t be afraid to try unfamiliar food, but watch how others do it first. The caviar display may look enticing, but if you take a huge amount without any crème fraiche or toast points, you may be sorry — not only for the taste but for the strange looks from other guests.

At a cocktail party, it may seem like you need one hand for a drink, one hand for a plate and another for a fork, and one hand to shake in greeting. This does take some dexterity. Try to avoid holding the plate and glass at the same time. You can do this at least part of the time by standing near a place to park one or the other. If your hands are full when you would otherwise shake, just shrug your shoulders and say something witty about your juggling act. After all, everyone is coping with the same issue.

Some consultants advise eating before you go to the party, a philosophy that takes away half the fun of attending. Enjoy the offerings — in moderation. Don’t cantilever your treats or build a food tower on your plate. Choose a few things and return as desired. Finger food avoids the fork issue. So what if all the shrimp is gone by the time you get back? This party is part of your job; you can get shrimp tomorrow.

Of course, no one spills their food intentionally, but it sometimes happens. If you spill something on yourself, excuse yourself as you quickly move to the lavatory to blot and try to mitigate the damage with cold water. If, heaven forbid, you spill on somebody else, do not touch that person. Immediately apologize, offer to do something to help like getting them a new plate, and arrange to pay the dry cleaner’s bill. If someone has spilled on you, graciously excuse the other person, and hie to the lavatory to try to contain the damage. Control your anger at the other person’s clumsiness, especially if they are obviously tipsy. Be thankful that your own liquor moderation allows you to act with aplomb.

Relax. Go to the party with an upbeat attitude. Plan to have fun, and you will.

More Party Etiquette Tips From Attorney at Work


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