Holiday soirees are no place to be sorry; party properly by heeding these tips

For some, enjoying parties with friends and co-workers is the best part of the yuletide season.

For other (ahem) more reluctant socializers, attending holiday parties is the psychic equivalent of walking through a minefield decorated with colored lights and pretty tinsel while a painfully jolly choir sings in the background.

Or something like that.

Whatever your outlook, navigating a holiday party’s do’s and don’ts can be tricky. However, surviving the holiday party season with friends, family, career and reputation intact often comes down to — as do so many other things in life — keeping a few common-sense tips in mind.

On the upside, a holiday party can be a great venue for renewing, or creating, bonds with family members and friends, and even, in the case of the oft-maligned office party, co-workers and bosses.

At an office party, “everybody’s in good spirits and not at work,” says Maria Schellhase, a business faculty member at the College of Southern Nevada. “So often, our workdays move so quickly we don’t have any time to bond with each other.”

At an office party, people who know each other only through a common workplace can “connect on a personal level, and people really want that,” Schellhase adds. “Because of technology, we don’t do that as much as we used to.”

Still, being thrown together at a party with people we may not know well can be stressful.

“We get to choose our friends. We don’t get to choose our family or co-workers, always,” says Daniel Post Senning, author and spokesman for the Emily Post Institute. “So this is likely to be the time of year when people find themselves in different or unusual social situations.”

Making things even more socially intimidating: The holiday season is a time of year that’s important to many people, and that adds “real emotional weight to these events,” Post Senning says. “And, then, of course, you’ve got the added perceived pressure to have fun, and you’ve got a recipe for anxiety for a lot of people.”

The first step in surviving a holiday party is to understand the party you’ll be attending. Note for instance, that a social gathering among longtime friends or family members is a different breed of fete than an office party.

Dana Angioni, academic adviser and professional development coordinator for the Lee Business School at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, suggests thinking of an office party not as a purely social event, but as an extension of your office.

“(Guests) should remember that, especially if they are at a business function, or if it’s a holiday party for your office, certainly your professional reputation is on the line,” she says. “Even though it’s a casual setting, you always want to put your best foot forward and always give the higher-ups a positive impression of you.

“You want to be remembered for the incredible work you do and the skills and abilities you bring to the table, and not for dancing around with a lampshade on your head at the office party.”

Which leads naturally to a word about alcoholic beverages. Unlike a conversational slip-up or accidentally spilled drink, overdoing it with the drinks can cost you not just your social standing, your reputation or your career, but, in the case of a drunken driving arrest, your freedom.

The best bet, Angioni says, is to follow a one-drink rule, particularly at an office party. A glass of soda, or a rum and Coke sans the rum, easily will fool other guests and can help to prevent water cooler gossip on Monday morning.

In preparing to attend a party, check out the host’s invitation for helpful clues. Is the setting a local pub or a fancy restaurant? Will it be cocktails-only or a full sit-down dinner? Will it last all night or end at a specific time?

Dress appropriately. Particularly at a workplace party, Angioni says, “I think a good rule is always to wear more than wear less. I think that you always want to look professional and put together, and that you can save the fancy cocktail dress that’s, maybe, a little revealing for other events.”

If in doubt, “it’s perfectly OK to call ahead and ask,” Post Senning says, and “when in doubt, (go) one notch up. I often tell people that it’s easier to take off a jacket and loosen a tie than to materialize one. People notice when you put on good holiday attire, and it will make an impression.”

For men, wearing a suit and tie is always a good start. For women, Schellhase says, “I would wear a suit, but just a little more dressy than I would to the office.

“A lot of people like dressing up, and I think these events are a good opportunity to do that, but I’m not talking about a dress that’s inappropriate or (where) you have this plunging neckline.”

The reality, Angioni adds, is that “expectations for women are more strict than for men,” and, when in doubt, “more conservative is always a better choice.”

Then, show up on time, Post Senning says, neither too early nor late. A good guideline, he adds, is “never more than 10 minutes early, or a short five minutes early, to right on time.”

Call ahead if you’re going to be earlier than that or at all late. Sheila Keast, instructor and owner of Sheila Keast Etiquette, says a good rule of thumb for a dinner party is that a host should be expected to hold service no more than 15 minutes for late guests. So, particularly in the case of a dinner party, call ahead if running late.

Welcome gifts are always, well, welcome, so “bring a gift,” Post Senning says, and thank the host or hostess for the invitation.

One practical suggestion, Keast says: “I always tell people to eat before you go.”

If it’s just a casual “drink and nibble” event, eating beforehand will help insulate the guest from the effects of drinking alcohol on an empty stomach. And if it’s a full dinner party, having a bite beforehand will forestall the temptation to rudely pig out.

During the party, a good rule of thumb is to follow the host’s lead, Angioni says. So, if the host removes his coat, feel free to do the same. (The one exception: Don’t overimbibe, even if the host does; that’s a host’s prerogative, not a guest’s.)

A good guest mingles. At a company party, “don’t focus on socializing with your boss for the whole party, because that would be perceived by others as being someone trying to play politics to get ahead,” Schellhase says. “Plus, it ruins your opportunity to get to know other people.”

Have in mind a few safe topics — sports and celebrity news, for instance — to employ as conversation starters, but avoid such topics as religion and politics, which can start a conversation nicely but then devolve into nasty debate.

If you’re involved in a conversation, invite others into it. If you’re not in a conversation, stand by until a natural break occurs, and then introduce yourself.

“Say, ‘Hi, I’m Sheila. I overheard you talking about such and such,’ ” Keast suggests. “But don’t just burst in the conversation in the middle. Wait for a break.”

Never gossip and, at an office party, keep shop talk to a minimum.

“There’s a time and a place for that,” Schellhase says. “I think this is really a time to connect with people on a deeper level. That’s what you should be concentrating on — building relationships and learning more about people — because so often in our day, things move so quickly that you don’t have time to connect at that level.”

Finally, as you leave, thank your hosts — Post Senning notes that thank-you notes never go out of style — and feel confident that you’ve survived another holiday social minefield with reputation and career untarnished.

The bottom line — and for any type of social gathering — is that “you don’t want to do anything at the party that you’re not proud of,” Schellhase says.

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.