Cubicle buddy’s birthday party is this Saturday? In a neighborhood across the city from my apartment, at a brewery, even though I’m on antibiotics and really shouldn’t imbibe? Sure, I’ll be there. Company holiday party? Absolutely. Going-away drinks at 6 p.m. on Tuesday? Well, I’ve got a standing appointment at 7:00, but I could squeeze in 20 minutes, assuming the subway is running normally.
For my first few years in the working world, this was how I operated. If you invited me to a thing, I went to your thing, with almost no exceptions. It was exhausting and overwhelming and usually meant I didn’t actually enjoy the events I attended. More often than not, I didn’t actually want to be there.
At some point, though, I met a co-worker whose socializing strategy was the complete opposite of mine. He never went to anything. Which seemed freeing, but also like a good way to become “that person” — you know, the one in the office who never gets invited to things because they’ll never go anyway, the one deemed unfriendly or rude when they leave the office alone as the rest of you are headed out to celebrate your teammate’s birthday.
In search of a happy medium, I spoke to Diane Gottsman, author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life and founder of the Protocol School of Texas, and Barbara Pachter, a business etiquette and communications expert who has written 10 books on the subject. Here’s what they had to say about figuring out what you must go to, what you can get out of, and how to make work-related social events, if not outright fun, then at least a little more enjoyable.
Embrace “mandatory fun”
The first question I ask: Did I really have to attend the company-sponsored holiday party this year? Gottsman tells me to reframe my thinking about these kinds of events as optional. They’re not.
“You want to be part of the team, but that doesn’t mean everybody has to know your business. You can strike a balance.”
“Something that’s a structured event, is planned in advance, and is hosted by your employer… that’s something you should really consider attending,” Gottsman says. “Really, any kind of formal office event, whether it’s a summer picnic or a holiday party, should be considered what I call ‘mandatory fun.’”
Pachter echoes this sentiment. “If you don’t socialize at all, you’re not part of the group,” she says, explaining that you should always make an effort to attend company-sponsored events — but, she adds, that doesn’t mean you have to go so far as to befriend your co-workers outside the office if you don’t want to. “You want to be part of the team, but that doesn’t mean everybody has to know your business. You can strike a balance.”
Make hanging out with co-workers work for you
Once you’ve committed to an event, Pachter suggests prepping a little if you’re nervous about talking to your colleagues or boss outside the office. She recommends trying to avoid talking about work and instead focusing on other things you might have in common.
“It’s a way for you to stick in your boss’s brain,” she says. “Next month, there might be a difficult project or an opportunity that, because you mentioned [X thing] to your boss, you may be considered for. That’s another reason to socialize outside of work,” and maybe a more compelling incentive at that.
Remember: Happy hour is just that—an hour
“Happy hours are important to go to, even if you don’t drink,” Gottsman says. “Show up and have a seltzer. It’ll show you’re interested in building relationships. You don’t have to stay there all night.” Really, showing your face is the important part. Stay long enough that your co-workers remember you were there, and then reward yourself by going home and bingeing on TV from the comfort of your couch.
Keep tabs on how many times you say no
It’s fine to turn down an invitation, whether it’s because you are genuinely busy or just plain don’t want to go. “It’s okay to decline things that just aren’t your scene,” Gottsman says, and you don’t need to say exactly why you’re turning it down. “You can still maintain your privacy. You don’t have to give away too much information when you decline.” But everything in moderation — to make sure you’re not becoming known as the office anti-socialite, you should also make an effort to say yes every once in a while.
When you’re calculating how often you need to suck it up and go, keep in mind that corporate culture matters. “If no one is extending invitations to do things outside the office, you shouldn’t feel as much pressure to attend on the rare occasion that somebody does invite you to something,” Gottsman says. “But if it’s the kind of place where people regularly socialize after hours outside of the office and it’s an invitation to something benign, something that’ll only take an hour of your time… you should really consider going to those from time to time.”
Consider which colleagues you actually want to have as friends
Every one of your co-workers has a birthday, and chances are a decent number of them will invite you to celebrate at some point. Gottsman suggests weighing the relationship you have with the person who invited you: “Will it hurt their feelings? Are you going to feel uncomfortable if you don’t go?” If you answer yes to those questions, she suggests making an appearance. Think of it as friendship maintenance.
Give a truthful reason for your absence
It seems obvious, but don’t lie. Pachter suggests using the medium through which you were invited to send your regrets: an email for an email, an in-person conversation for a verbal invite. “You want to be honest — well, mostly honest. Ninety-nine percent honest,” Pachter jokes. “If your significant other’s office party is that night, just say that. Don’t mention that if you really worked hard, you could probably squeeze in their event for an hour too. They don’t need to know that.”
“And don’t repeat excuses if you can help it,” she adds. “Nobody will believe it if your Great-Aunt Hortense passes away—again.” Be honest and concise, and nothing more.
Leave whenever you want, and don’t apologize for it
If you’ve decided to go to an event outside work and at any point deeply regret this decision — your boss is drunk, you are drunk, nobody is drunk but you really wish they were — you are free to leave. Which, again, sounds obvious, but even just knowing you can leave at any point can make work-related events less daunting.
“When you find yourself feeling like leaving is in your best interest, find the host, thank them, and then leave,” Pachter explains. Chances are your co-workers will already be pleased you made an effort in the first place.
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