Whether you’re an extrovert or introvert (or even an introvert hiding as a very practiced extrovert), there’s something about office holiday parties that sets off jitters for lots of people. Navigating small talk with intimidating higher-ups or trying to hit it off with new coworkers can make anyone’s heartbeat race, regardless of whether or not you struggle with an actual social anxiety disorder. But before you preemptively RSVP “no” just to avoid any potential nervousness, know that you can make it through a mistletoe-filled gathering without being a natural social butterfly.
“Acknowledge and accept that your anxiety is going to be there, but it doesn’t have to control you,” says Dr. Noor Pinna, a licensed mental health therapist and TEDx speaker. “When we acknowledge that emotion is in existence, we don’t allow it to hide and simmer but rather we befriend and walk hand in hand with it.”
Instead of beating yourself up about how awkward you feel or think you look, test out some tried-and-true tactics for setting yourself (and everyone around you) at ease. No matter where you are on the corporate ladder, these eight tips will help you ace the holiday party -- and maybe make a new friend or two in the office during the process.
We all have that friend who loves crashing parties for the free hors d'oeuvres. The holiday season is the perfect time to enlist their help as your office party date, aka your BYOF (bring your own friend). First, let them know about your anxiety! That way they can be your trusted companion for the evening, running interference if anyone tries to talk your ear off about work drama or chatting up Matt from accounting when he corners you. It’ll also give you a chance to catch your breath in between engaging with co-workers you’ve never met by talking to someone you’re already comfortable with. No plus-ones allowed? Snag an office buddy before the festivities and make a plan to head there together, so that you enter with a companion you know you can check in with throughout the night. They probably want a friend just as much as you do.
Keep your mind busy with friendly competition
Forcing conversation might be a breeze for your chatty friend, but most people find small talk with strangers awkward. To combat that, consider hosting the office holiday party at a location that doubles as entertainment, such as a modern bowling alley like Bowlero. Their venues around the country include plenty of built-in games -- laser tag, bowling, pool -- that’ll dial up the conversation. (Concentrating on sinking the eight-ball or bowling a strike will keep your mind focused, and a little friendly heckling never hurt anyone.) Even better, hosting the party at Bowlero also alleviates anxiety for the party planner, since you can book the venue online in minutes and work with one of their professional event planners. The most stressful parts of hosting a sweet get-together -- like decorations, setup, and cleanup -- are taken care of for you, so there’s no need to worry about letting your team down.
Prep your talking points in advance
It might feel silly to prepare for small talk, especially if you’ve worked at the company for a while, but it’ll help you chat with a little more ease. Actively listening to what someone is saying is easier if you aren’t casting about in your head for the next relatable subject. Also, if you already know what topics and stories you can speak to, you’ll feel more confident talking to someone you may not know well -- and it will keep you from telling rambling stories that you’ll nervously replay mentally for the next week. And remember, if you run out of things to say or don’t feel comfortable sharing, most people love to talk about themselves. All you need to do is have a list of go-to questions to get them going. They’ll probably be impressed by your curiosity, so they won’t suspect any nervousness you are experiencing.
Take a breather
Don’t forget to check in with yourself throughout the party and take a break as needed. If you start to feel a little anxious, there are a couple of helpful ways to center yourself. “It’s important to remember to keep breathing through it,” Pinna says. Practice a body scan meditation for a few minutes; the simple head-to-toe yoga breathing technique is known to slow a rampant heartbeat. Or, excuse yourself to go the bathroom or step outside for a minute to find a quiet spot to take a break. At the end of the day, know yourself and what relaxation tips work for you to get you back to the party and having a good time.
Set goals (and pump yourself up along the way)
Surviving an office party isn’t always easy, so set a few goals that you want to achieve at the party (even if they’re small). Whether it’s talking to one new person or managing to make it through a small-talk conversation with your CEO, give yourself a huge pat on the back every time you make it over another hurdle. When you need to pump yourself up, take a minute in front of the bathroom mirror to repeat a few positive mantras. It will help you quiet your inner critic from constantly telling you “you’re awkward” or “you’re failing.” Give yourself credit where credit is due -- especially if you helped plan the party.
Bond over the awesome party itself
The easiest way to open up any conversation is to react to what’s happening around you, whether it’s complementing the lamb lollipops and oven-fired pizzas at Bowlero (or really the entire menu) or praising your teammate’s bowling game. At a venue like Bowlero, there will be more than enough to chat about -- from the arcade games and laser tag, to shareable eats, to delicious oversized drinks. Plus, talking about the party is a good jumping-off point to learn more about each other's shared interests in a way that doesn’t feel forced. Maybe you and a co-worker both have an irrational LOVE of pinball; that’s something you can bond over in the arcade. If you’ve wanted to try shooting pool but never had the chance to learn, this convo might lead to having someone teach you the ropes or vice versa.
You don’t need to drink a lot to have a good time
Indulging in a little liquid courage can feel tempting in an awkward social situation, but watch your cocktail intake to keep yourself from blurring too many lines. Alcohol is a depressant, so if you are particularly tense, a lot of adult beverages may not be the way to go. Throwing back a few is fine, but then make the switch to a club soda or just plain old water when you’re ready to slow down. If you don’t want people to ask why you’re not drinking, order a seltzer with ice, lemon, and a splash of bitters, or opt for a mocktail mule where the iconic copper mug will throw off other guests. Either of these drinks looks just like a cocktail, and you’ll be the most hydrated person at the party.
Give yourself an out
If you know you can only tolerate so much socializing, build that into your evening plan. There is no set length of time that you have to be at a party; it’s up to you to decide what you’re comfortable with. Determining your exit time in advance can help keep your mind at ease since you’ll know exactly how much schmoozing you have left. Pinna recommends not arriving early and doing a quick lap once you’re there to see what everyone is up to before picking a couple of people you’re comfortable saying hello to. By telling your brain you only have to commit to the 30 or 45 minutes you’ve planned on, you can focus on other things, like hitting the lanes for a quick game. Remember -- you can always snooze that mental alarm if you’re having fun and try to get another strike. And with these tips, we have a very good feeling you’ll end up having a better time at this year’s holiday party than you think.