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Surviving Your Departmental Holiday Party

Thoughts on that much loved and loathed holiday tradition.

December 10, 2018
 
 

Patrick Bigsby is an alumnus, former employee, and lifelong wrestling fan of the University of Iowa. Sometimes, he tweets.

‘Tis the season for one of my greatest fears: office holiday parties. No other event in the grad school social calendar combines the general awkwardness of networking, the delicacy of department politics, and the inescapable hierarchical debasement of hanging out with your boss.

I’ve been largely blessed with kind and amiable (or at least inoffensive) classmates, coworkers, and supervising professors. I’m grateful that my experience has been marked by collegiality rather than interpersonal conflict. A few colleagues have even turned out to be lifelong friends.  That being said, I’m not particularly eager to spend my free time hanging out with the department en masse over a plate of crudités.

This reluctance stems from a few factors. As I’ve written before, I benefited from an existing social network outside of academia by attending my hometown school. I’m also not much of a ‘true believer’ regarding my areas of study, at least relative to most of my peers. Perhaps more than anything else, I believe in jealously guarding your time away from the classroom and office. Unlike the hours spent on your assistantship duties and dissertation committee meetings, that time is purely yours and something about spending it attempting to enjoy yourself in front of your advisor offends my sensibilities. To that end, I’ve compiled my strategies for surviving your department’s end-of-semester gathering.

1. Stay sober. I devote a lot of energy to beer snobbery (1,709 beers tasted and rated as of this writing), so it isn’t unusual for me to crack open a cold one of my choosing with the boys of my choosing at the time and location of my choosing. Since nothing about a departmental holiday party involves my choosing, I skip the hard stuff. This temporary teetotaling helps ensure I achieve my goals of a) leaving promptly; and b) not revealing any unnecessary information about myself. Katie Shives wrote the definitive GradHacker guide to the dry approach to grad school social events, which I recommend for further reading on the subject.

2. Stick to a schedule. It bears repeating: your free time is your free time. However, as a practical matter, I acknowledge that social and professional pressures all but necessitate some strategic token appearances at department events. Unless you’ve logged a lot of face time at departmental happy hours, dinner parties, and the like earlier in the semester, this probably means you’re going to make up for it in December. But that doesn’t mean the GradHacker rules for work-life balance go out the window! I recommend committing to one hour of department partying, seeing it through, then politely excusing yourself with some sincere well-wishes. Sixty minutes of small talk and punch is a fair trade for relieving your social obligations and getting to the rest of your free time without guilt.

3. Listen more than you talk. Office chit-chat is tough to begin with and even tougher for grad students who, owing to the nature of their work, typically have narrowly focused interests. There is a finite number of conversation topics to be mined from laboratory trials and literature reviews. I like to get around this by trying to make questions at least 50 percent of my party conversation. Even if you have nothing in common with the other folks in your department or you’re an out-and-proud introvert, you can prompt others to chime in. It’s even okay if you’re not totally invested in the answers, as most people (particularly senior faculty) can fill your sixty minute quota with surprising ease.

4. Decline any organized gift-giving. Sometimes these parties include some kind of ritualized gift exchange, like Yankee Swap, Secret Santa, or the Gift Card Shuffle (I made that one up but it totally sounds real, right?). I realize I’m about to reveal my true Grinchian nature, but I strongly recommend that you avoid these gift games or, at the very least, that you freely elect to participate without any expectation or strong-arming. I make this recommendation for two reasons. First, consider the income inequality present in any given departmental function. This isn’t intended to be a criticism writ large of universities’ personnel spending allocations; it’s a statement of the fact that your department chair’s salary is much, much greater than your stipend, if you’re lucky enough to receive one. In a gift exchange, this disparity can manifest in the form of embarrassment, hurt feelings, and other mood-killers. Second, we’ve all seen that episode of The Office. People can be incredibly petty, and it’s too easy for say, a particularly nice gift that ends up in the hands of the boss to be seen as brownnosing, or a more modest gift to be interpreted as ungrateful skinflintery.

5. Don’t forget to have fun. Just like the winter solstice, the darkness of a work party will eventually pass, so there’s no reason to dwell on it. If you’re determined to enjoy the party, ignore Scrooges like me! If you’re dreading it, there are plenty of opportunities for commiseration. For example, Alison Green of Ask a Manager has written several excellent holiday party-themed posts, including some ground rules for office gift-giving. You can’t go wrong abiding by her advice (or perusing her compilations of tales of work parties gone wrong). So, however you and your department choose to celebrate, don’t let it dampen your holiday cheer or sour a well-deserved winter break.

What are your strategies for getting through your department’s December gathering? Are you the office party animal or pooper? Let us know in the comments! Office holiday horror stories are of special interest to the author.

[Image by Flickr user Kent Kanouse and used under a Creative Commons license.]

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