Pretty high up on the long list of things I fear, just below driving in heavy rain and right above walking alone into a bar, is the office holiday party.
They are awkward affairs, rife with opportunities to say the wrong thing to the wrong person, humiliate yourself, or even do something bad enough to get yourself fired. At my state job, they are usually on-campus, dry lunches that entail a good bit of thankless work involving all manner of “other duties as assigned”: planning, potlucking (every celiac’s nightmare), setting up, serving, fake laughing, breaking down, cleaning up. Then trying to get back to your actual work with a belly heavy laden with rich holiday food.
My boss was too busy this year to have a party and we flew under the radar without one ever being discussed, for which I am greatly relieved. But I did have to go to my husband’s holiday party and try to impersonate a normal human being for a few hours.
The majority of Brandon’s engineer/planner/lawyer-type colleagues are convinced I’m a complete weirdo based on the many of my collages he has hanging in his office (sweet man that he is). I present as evidence a direct quote from one of his colleagues, said while gazing at the collage below: “I don’t get it. Your wife seems so nice and so normal in person.”
So whenever I’m around his coworkers, the pressure is on for me to demonstrate that I’m weird in a harmless, charming, entertaining kind of way, not a creepy, skin-crawling way. And I apparently have a skewed frame of reference here, because I come from a family of artists and I work at a university with a vibrant art department, and I think compared to most of the art in the world, my collages tend toward the juvenile and silly and children’s-booky. When someone finds them weird or scary, it baffles me, but also makes me think well, I guess I’m even weirder than I think I am!
Now, I feel bad saying I “have to” go to his office party, because I really am glad to be asked, and because he always greets the event with such untroubled enthusiasm. His pure, gregarious, untortured soul feels no trepidation whatsoever in social settings and he says, with total genuineness and lack of sarcasm, things like, “I’m really looking forward to the City’s Christmas party.” And then he goes and has fun, and he is Mr. Life of the Party MVP, and everyone is glad he was there. Easy peasy.
I did manage to have fun again this year, for the fourth time emerging unscathed from his office holiday party. But in the 24 hours beforehand, when I was feeling jittery, in order to boost my confidence, I hearkened back to a couple months ago at the SAIR conference, and I remembered that I have been known to pull out a victory even in as difficult an arena as the work-related social event.
You see, at this particular conference, they always have a roundtable luncheon where you can choose to sit at certain themed tables with designated discussion topics. This fall was my second time attending the conference, so I kind of knew the drill.
The previous year, I had two different topics I was interested in, but I failed to think through the math of hundreds of conference attendees being divided by eight-top tables. The two tables where I wanted to sit were both full by the time I arrived, and I ended up at a random topic table where I had nothing to contribute or learn. The acoustics in the ballroom were so bad anyway that it was impossible to hear across the large tables, so it was all kind of a waste.
So at this fall’s conference, I had decided to snag a seat for myself and my colleague at an open, non-discussion-topic-themed table (which I didn’t realize existed the previous year) and just have a mental break from institutional research topics while eating. I got there first, and the experience of sitting alone at a table with my food wondering if anyone would sit with me felt every bit as nerve-wracking as it did back in my middle school cafeteria days. Whether people looked at me askance and wondered about my level of cooties and weirdness or not, I cannot say, but seats were limited, so the table did eventually fill up.
Let me take a moment to explain that my personality has a hidden side that, much like a werewolf, completely transforms me on rare occasions into someone almost unrecognizable. As I noted, most of the time, I’m not great in a group social setting. My natural state is to be shy and quiet, unable to think of anything to say or paralyzed by worry over saying the wrong thing. But, every once in a blue moon, I become a supernatural, social beast. A lively, chatty, fun Maria mysteriously manifests for a few hours only to dissolve away into the mist again before sunrise.
I can’t control or predict when it happens or explain the hows and whys, but it happened to me at that luncheon. I spoke with every one of the seven people at the table. They were making eye contact with me, and I was unflinchingly returning that eye contact like a boss. They were interested in the things I said. I made them laugh. I got them going again when the conversation started to die on the vine. My interacting-with-other-humans skills were absolutely on fleek.
Were we talking shop and learning from each other? For the most part, no. But that’s not the point. I may not have showed off my data analysis cred, but when the people at that table think back to SAIR 2015, they are going to remember that one really chatty woman at lunch who was super knowledgeable about Charlotte (where next year’s conference will be held), the South Carolina flood, and fire ants.
True, I had an unprecedented amount of conversational fodder to work with, but I used up every bit of it to save the eight of us from many minutes of awkward silence. I was the vanquisher of the banquet that day, and I didn’t even have to break out my copperhead story.
I fully admit that I was not able to achieve this level of dazzling charisma at Brandon’s office Christmas party, but remembering my prowess that day gave me the confidence I needed to put in a solid C+ performance there.
If any of you ever find yourselves in a group social setting with me, I apologize in advance for my awkwardness. Just know that, at some point, the stars will align and enough strange and possibly terrible things will have happened, providing me with conversational material, and I will have embibed just the right amount of caffeine and/or alcohol, and I will social butterfly my little wings until there is a whirlwind of outgoingness and fun surrounding us all. Barring that, you can always ask me to tell you my snakebite story.
Merry merry holidays to you all, and good luck with those office parties. May we all still have jobs in the New Year.