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How much hearty at the office party?

STRIKE A SMART BALANCE BETWEEN DEBAUCHERY AND A DULL AFFAIR

By Jeff Elder, staff writer

Monday, November 15, 2004

Section: MONEYWISE

Edition: ONE-THREE

Page: 3D

Guess what. I just saw the plan for the holiday office party: Open bar till 2, shrimp the size of your fist, sexiest-elf contest at midnight. Man, we're gonna par-TAY!

Oops. My bad. That was the program for the holiday office party in 1984. So what's it really gonna be like? One of those depressing mope-fests from the past few years where we stand around and sip Sprite while discussing who got laid off? Talk about The Little Bummer Boy. Actually, eggnog-breath, it's neither. Welcome to the holiday office party of the 21st century. Think lean - but not mean - red and green machine. Like a kid whose family is having a "little" holiday, you might feel a bit disappointed at first. But if you stick that bottom lip back in, you might find out it's actually good for you - professionally and personally.

Jack Daniels is not Santa

As we learned in the '90s, there's a downside to drinking a tanker truck of hootch at the holiday office party. You were embarrassed on Monday. Or divorced by Monday. Or still in jail on Monday. "I remember one time our client had to be carried out of a party. And she was the one putting it on," says Mary Tribble, who's been planning holiday office parties and other functions for 20 years as president of the Tribble Creative Group. "These days, I rarely see times when companies just have an open bar with no precautionary steps." Tribble says fewer parties are going late, and if they do, companies tend to plan ahead with designated drivers. Lou Kennedy, a professional etiquette consultant based in San Antonio, sees the same trend. "In the past, there would be an unlimited supply of alcohol, with no consequences the next day. It doesn't work like that anymore." But things also aren't as dreary as a few years ago, says Kenny Colbert, president of the Employers Association, a human resources consulting firm based in Charlotte. "In the past few years, everyone sort of stood around the punch bowl and cried," Colbert says. "It's going to be a little more upbeat this year because there's better economic news and more money to spend."

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Holiday spirit, not spirits

What's emerging is a simpler, maybe even more sincere, social gathering, Tribble says. "Maybe a company will have a party at a hotel, but the meal isn't as late, and alcohol is limited with drink tickets." Tribble's own company is gathering to help a charity that brings toys to underprivileged kids. "It's just as much fun, and you feel a lot better afterward - partly because you're not hung over," she says. (OK, I can see you sulking. You want shrimp the size of the White House Christmas tree. You want an open bar. Why should you care about a work party if it's not going to leave you glazed as a holiday ham? Try this as a concept, Pouty the Elf: Maybe, however you personally celebrate the holidays, you could take that occasion to be nice to people you see every day. It could even help your career.) "It's an opportunity to enhance relationships, not just a chance to grab free food and drinks," Kennedy says.

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The shy grinch within

But here's what happens when you go into a work party, right? You make a beeline for the chow, then scurry to a corner with your close friends and gossip. Mistake. Mistake socially, mistake professionally. "Young people especially are blowing a real opportunity to show they're mature, to reach out and get to know people and just improve their work and social lives," Tribble says. But work parties are scary! There you are socializing - or trying to - with the big boss, or someone you were glaring at yesterday at the Xerox machine. "We're all used to sending information at the click of a button, but many of us don't know how to communicate anymore," says Cynthia Grosso, founder of the Charleston School of Protocol and Etiquette. "Most people have a social phobia these days." That's OK, Grosso and the other experts say. Nobody's going to take a swing at you. If it helps, Grosso and Kennedy say, think ahead of time of the people you want to talk to, the things you want to ask them and good nonwork topics. And if you've just GOT to try your buddy's new drink, the "hairy Christmas" and gator on the floor like the bad old daze? "Well, there's always the after-party," says Tribble. Tips for Enjoying the Scaled-Down Office Party Think ahead of time of people at work you'd like to know better. Try not to talk shop. Beforehand, you might think of a few nonwork conversation topics. When you come in, take a good look around and show you're receptive and open to socializing with the whole group. Don't head right for the bar or food. Greet a few people. Don't huddle with a small group of close-knit friends. Reach out with some holiday spirit. Limit your alcohol intake to two drinks. Ask people about themselves and listen to what they have to say. Don't kiss up to the bosses, but don't shy away from them, either. Don't be the last to leave. The after-party might be starting.

Author: JEFF ELDER, STAFF WRITER

Source: The Charlotte Observer

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