This is an audio transcript of the Working It podcast episode: ‘How to survive the office Christmas party’

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Isabel Berwick
Hello and welcome to Working It from the Financial Times. I’m Isabel Berwick. It’s the office Christmas party. You’re feeling good. You’ve got a glass of warm white wine in your hand. No one’s embarrassed themselves. Wait. Is that Charlie from accounts twerking on the dance floor? We’d all like to have fun at our office party, but the risk of embarrassing yourself is very real.

Lucky for you, I’ve brought together three seasoned survivors of workplace embarrassment to help you stay out of trouble. Viv Groskop is an author, comedian and journalist. Emma Jacobs is work and careers writer at the FT and Stephen Bush is an FT columnist and associate editor. They shared some tips on how to enjoy your workplace Christmas events while making sure you can still look your colleagues in the eye come January. Stephen, you’re a professional partygoer, I might say. Have you ever had a party mishap?

Stephen Bush
Oh God, too many to count. I recently did a new one. So in Westminster, which is my main beat, a lot of people, it does have to be said, broadly do look the same. I would also actually include myself in this at the moment and I’ve currently got the kind of default black man in Westminster haircut. And I have this awful moment where not only did I mistake someone for someone else, but it was at a certain stage in the evening. And so instead of having the good sense to just apologise without any caveat, I said, well, I’m sorry. The problem is you do all kind of look alike.

Isabel Berwick
(Laughter) And what was the response?

Stephen Bush
Fortunately, they took it in good humour. They said, yeah, I have got the government spad stubble and M&S suit on, I accept. And I thought like, OK, I’m not sure whether I should agree with you. And I laughed, apologised and fortunately we moved on without having burnt the contact completely to ashes.

Isabel Berwick
You’ve reminded me of a recent mishap in the lift at work where I mistook one senior woman for another, because, as you say, everyone’s quite professional lady dressed and they all look alike. So and I didn’t get gracefully out of that one. I think I blamed menopausal brain fog, which is probably not something you can blame anything on, Stephen.

Stephen Bush
No, I think and that would have invited more questions than answers, really.

Viv Groskop
This isn’t a mishap but I am actually finding it harder to remember who people are. And so I’m kind of keen, as we go into party season, to think how to talk to people when you haven’t got a clue who they are but they might know who you are.

Isabel Berwick
Viv, this must happen to you all the time. How do you deal with it?

Viv Groskop
Well, I feel cautious about telling you how I deal with it because next time I meet anyone who I haven’t remembered, who is actually an old friend I’ve known for 20 years, (inaudible) know that I do this. But what I tend to say to people, if I’m meeting someone for I think the first time, always say nice to see you, because you can say that to anyone. It does then open the door usually to somebody saying, oh yeah, the last time I saw you. Or it is just easier than saying nice to meet you and then the other person has to say, actually, we have met before. So just go with nice to see you and it covers a multitude of sins.

Isabel Berwick
That is an excellent tip. Emma, have you got any tips for people you don’t know or you think you probably should know but can’t remember their name? Or have you have you learnt a coping mechanism yet?

Emma Jacobs
Coping mechanism is just to withdraw politely and try and move on to somebody I do know and then try and get some information. I mean, people are kind of interchangeably businesslike. It’s very hard.

Viv Groskop
I think it really depends so much if it’s somebody in your company or in your group of supposed colleagues or some leader in a complementary area in your company. And it’s really problematic. But I think in party season you’re often meeting people where it’s really not about work. People don’t want to talk about work so you can almost use the excuse, I think, of not recognising people or really knowing exactly who they are to just ask them, you know, what are you doing for Christmas, where are you going on holiday next year to not make it about work.

Isabel Berwick
What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done at work that you can tell us about? Viv, I know you haven’t been in a workplace for some time, but you are a very busy worker.

Viv Groskop
Yes, well, I’ve been freelance for more than 20 years, and there’s a very good reason for that, which you’ll understand when I tell this story. This happened when I was about probably 23, 24, And I do think it’s useful for some of your younger listeners because this is an occupational hazard at Christmas party season. It’s the empty stomach, because even one glass of alcohol is gonna destroy you. It was at the Christmas party. I got very, very drunk and the incident became known as the shaming of Secret Santa. I was Secret Santa. I did get overexcited because I was running the office party Secret Santa. But I had an empty stomach and, you know, just really overexcited, aged 23, 24 wouldn’t usually drink loads of champagne. And I just, you know, drank as much of free alcohol as possible.

And I don’t really remember very much about it. I may have just been overly friendly with some of my colleagues, but it was horrific and it was really shaming and awful. I learnt my lesson. I can’t say I never repeated it ever again, although I definitely was never asked to be Secret Santa again. But I think what I should have done is A, eat and B, had a monitor, a human adult monitor who is in charge of me, who would have either helped me with this Secret Santa thing, which obviously I was a bit stressed about doing and got overexcited about, or who would have helped me to monitor my alcohol intake. The more people you can enlist in this quest for reasonable behaviour, the easier it is for you.

Isabel Berwick
So that’s really interesting. So in fact, the answer to this is the same as the answer to presentations, which is preparation, preparation, preparation. Even if it’s just stuffing your face with carbs.

Viv Groskop
Yeah, preparing for things to go wrong. So you need to think in advance, though, what would be the worst-case scenario? And worst-case scenario is you’re gonna turn up somewhere where there’s a tonne of free drink and you haven’t had anything to eat.

Emma Jacobs
That happened last year, actually. I had to leave a work party early because I hadn’t had any food. I mean, there never is any food, really. And the drink? The drink is quite free-flowing. And then last year, I think quite early on, I thought, I’m just gonna be sick. I just left. I had to leave because there was no way around it.

Isabel Berwick
So prepare. Pace yourself. Stephen, you must go to a party or two parties every night at this time of year.

Stephen Bush
Yeah, it does. I would say it does feel like that. And then I actually thought about my calendar and it is in fact, every political party, every think-tank has some kind of like event where you have to well, you don’t have to, but I think it’s usual to work the room and refresh your contacts. I think the thing I’ve essentially realised is I’ve now got very good at eating at really weird times. So about this time of year I just eat at 5pm and that has curbed both my stupid incidences. ‘Cause actually I realised most of my Christmas party faux pas of this season are not when I’m drunk. It’s at the next party when I’m feeling hungover and grumpy when I say something like, yeah, but you’re gonna lose, aren’t you? 2019 party season, I’d forgotten that the kind of public position was who’s to say what could happen at this election? And I kind of did the sort of like, well, everyone hates Jeremy Corbyn, particularly people who want to leave the EU hate Jeremy Corbyn and you’re the stop leaving the EU with Jeremy Corbyn party. So who’s to say how it will go, guys? Because I just felt too terrible to lie. And I just realised at that point you’ve got to have a — particularly if you’re doing the Christmas party circuit — you’ve got to have a sort of a strategy to not start to, you know, disintegrate.

Isabel Berwick
That’s really interesting. Do they go in for Secret Santas at these political parties?

Stephen Bush
No, thankfully, because no one at these parties wants to be at them. No one goes, oh, yeah, let’s have a Secret Santa or anything, which any way indicates that anyone involved with these gatherings likes one another. Because that’s not what they’re for. Which really does raise the question of why I’m going to not one but two tonight.

Viv Groskop
But that’s really interesting there, Steven, because you said earlier you referred to working the room and refreshing your contacts book. And obviously that’s very natural for you. That’s your bread and butter, that’s your job. You must be really good at that. But most people don’t really need to be able to work a room or find new contacts or refresh their contacts book or whatever, but they feel a pressure to do so regardless of it actually being beneficial to them. So I often get asked about this because I think that people bring the same nerves to that situation that they bring to doing a presentation or having a stressful meeting or having to present slides or whatever. They bring those nerves to the Christmas party about something that they’re not actually gonna have to do. Nobody’s actually expecting you to do that at your work’s Christmas party. They’re just expecting you to go and have a nice time and make your colleagues feel OK about themselves.

Isabel Berwick
So it’s not actually pleasurable. And you can accept that.

Viv Groskop
Well, I think you can accept you don’t have to do it. You know, you don’t have to come away from the Christmas party having made sure that the MD knows who you are and that you’re one to watch. But I think people feel as if that’s what they should be doing. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard the story of anybody who ever received any kind of career break or great opportunity or connection because of the office Christmas party. It’s usually the opposite. It’s more likely to be career-ending if you’re not careful. So to tread that middle ground of just turn up, try to be as normal as possible . . . 

Isabel Berwick
Eat something before you . . . 

Viv Groskop
Eat something, make everyone else feel as normal as possible and make a French exit.

Isabel Berwick
Yes. You’re unlikely to secure a promotion at the Christmas party, but you certainly can do harm. Emma, has that ever happened to you?

Emma Jacobs
I did have one situation where the recovery was worse than the faux pas because I met somebody who I thought was gonna be writing for this section that I worked on. That information had been passed on to me. Turned out that information hadn’t been passed on to the person that I was saying how delightful it was gonna be that they were gonna write for us. And so he looked at me completely blankly and said, I don’t know what you’re talking about. And I said, oh, I think I must have dreamt it, actually. (Isabel laughs) And I just sort of went, yes, that must have been it, it must have been a dream.

Isabel Berwick
The Dallas defence. (Laughter)

Emma Jacobs
Exactly! Just like, you know when you were a child and you think, if they can’t see me, I can’t, you know, I don’t exist. It was like that. And then I mean, I think he just thought I was an idiot and never really talked to me again. So that wasn’t career-defining, but it was a kind of fuck up.

Isabel Berwick
No, but you bring up an interesting point that because it’s not just about your behaviour, you know, the Christmas season, it’s about what you say to people. You know, drink can loosen the tongue and things that have remained secret, one finds pretty quickly aren’t anymore. I know I’ve been guilty of that many times and I apologise . . . 

Viv Groskop
Yeah, I feel like you’re getting away with this so easily. (Laughter)

Isabel Berwick
(Laughter) I’ve done it many times.

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Isabel Berwick
Fortunately for me, most of my many party mis-steps took place in the olden days before going viral at work was a real risk. But is that the case now? I asked Viv.

Viv Groskop
As far as I can work out and from what I hear from other people, Christmas parties are much more of a closed zone. I think you’re at less risk of doing something embarrassing and there being evidence of it in social media than you are in a regular public place if you go out for drinks any other time of the year. So I think that’s one of the interesting things about Christmas parties is that they are often a closed, it’s a closed group. It’s only you and your colleagues, but it has the atmosphere of being like a wedding where people would take lots of selfies and videos, all that kind of thing. I feel like in a work situation people don’t do that so much. But you have the impression of this being very sociable. We all know each other. Hey, you know, this is all off the record and that’s what you have to be really careful about. It’s the idea that this is off the record, that you’re not really at work — and you are.

Isabel Berwick
OK, so you’ve committed the faux pas. How do you recover? Do you work from home? Do you hope people forget? Do you apologise? Do you double down? Stephen.

Stephen Bush
I think it depends on the situation. I mean, I think Viv’s exactly right, that obviously the big difference is, is and I’m mostly doing this in a scenario in which it is not only socially acceptable, but actually it’s helpful for everyone all around to both say, hey, it’s been great talking to you but I need to move on now in a way that you would never actually do it. You know, If I said that at the FT Christmas party, that would be the kind of story that would quite rightly follow me forever, right? (Laughter)

So I think because the nature of what I’m doing is openly transactional, I mostly just apologise. The thing that I can say you should never do in a recovery is try and recover for another person. Actually, this happened comparatively recently and someone who works in Downing Street was so drunk and so obnoxious. And when I next saw them, they looked a bit awkward and for some reason I took it upon myself to say, you know, don’t worry about it. We were talking about it afterwards and everyone knew that you were just the worse for drink. And I really don’t understand why I thought that would be better than just letting it go. I think that basically, I think you should always apologise, but you definitely shouldn’t apologise for other people.

Isabel Berwick
In a lot of sectors, the Christmas party is an extraordinary sort of outpouring.

Viv Groskop
A bacchanal.

Isabel Berwick
A bacchanal, exactly that.

Viv Groskop
Yeah, it’s all to do with context as well, I think. Is the context a bacchanal where anything goes or is it more buttoned up, because you don’t wanna be the outlier who’s got that wrong, right? But some parties are what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

Isabel Berwick
Exactly.

Viv Groskop
I mean, I see that being the motto of the FT Christmas party and I’ve never been invited to it, so I can’t . . . I hope to know. But you do need to tread this line, I think. It’s so difficult of being loose enough to look as if you’re having a great time because otherwise, really, if you’re not gonna have any kind of a good time, probably make an excuse and don’t go.

Isabel Berwick
Yes.

Viv Groskop
And not mistaking it for I’m just having a night out with my mates.

Isabel Berwick
Yes. I think that’s really interesting. But I mean, my big preoccupation is dancing. Is it OK to dance? Stephen, do you dance at these Westminster parties? Is there dancing?

Stephen Bush
I’m actually quite anti-dancing in general because . . . I dance a lot when I’m in the kitchen, right? That is where I do 99.9 per cent of my dancing is while I’m cooking. And that is the correct venue for my dancing because you really have to love me already to appreciate it. And the two people who see me dancing are my partner, who hopefully does still love me, and myself, and I have a titanic reserve of self-regard. I think dancing is actually key to the sort of the macro theme this week, right, which is you’ve got to know what the context you’re operating in is. And I think in very few corporate Christmas parties is a context in which dancing is a good idea. I actually think last year’s big FT party is a good counter-example of that, and there was clearly a dance floor. There was a queue to get on it. There was a lot of . ..

Isabel Berwick
There was a queue.

Stephen Bush
Yeah. An activity which need not detain us and was taking place on the dance floor. But it was it was clearly context-appropriate. Whereas I think some of the more awkward things I have witnessed have been Christmas parties where there’s clearly what is meant to be ambient music going on and two people start dancing with each other and grinding on one another and everyone else involved really wishes that they weren’t there.

Viv Groskop
Because it’s one of the great things, though, about Christmas parties is that they encourage and unleash totally inappropriate behaviour. And in some ways, I think we should just erase everything that we’ve said and encourage everyone to be those two people because they bring joy to our lives. And sometimes you have to accept you are gonna be one of them.

Isabel Berwick
So none of us has ever slept under our desks then. I’ve got lots of friends who’ve done that.

Emma Jacobs
I’ve never done that. I’ve had some of my biggest existential crises at Christmas parties ’cause they’re like a kind of distillation of the whole company that you work for and I . . . 

Viv Groskop
You think, how on earth did I end up (overlapping audio) these people?

Emma Jacobs
I was at one but once and it was just so miserable and it was like industrial and it was just so manufactured fun and not real fun and there was no kind of joy. I had one colleague that I really liked, but that was about it. And I just thought I’ve got to leave. And then I did leave the next year. I do think it is a good kind of moment. I mean, it’s not like I’m gonna go in and take stock of my career, but I think it really does . . . 

Isabel Berwick
It can have that effect.

Emma Jacobs
Yeah.

Isabel Berwick
Well, we’re all off to the Christmas party next week. I won’t be reporting back. And my thanks to Viv Groskop, Emma Jacobs and Stephen Bush.

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That’s it for this week. I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas bash and come out the other side unscathed. But I’m also all ears if you have any embarrassing Christmas stories of your own. Get in touch at isabel.berwick@ft.com. This festive episode of Working It was produced by Mischa Frankl-Duval and mixed by Simon Panayi. The executive editor was Manuela Saragosa and Cheryl Brumley is the FT’s global head of audio. Thanks for listening.

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