The Boston Globe

Holiday office parties stir fears of small talk

To navigate through the office holiday parties, specialists offer ways to ease the discomfort

By Diane K. Danielson, Globe Correspondent, 12/19/04

It's time once again for the annual holiday office party, which means small talking with colleagues, significant others and possibly even clients. What is it about small talk that causes so much anxiety?

According to Claire A. Simmers, management professor at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, our shared discomfort is due to a lack of practice. ''The workplace itself is extremely stressful and oriented towards the bottom line,'' she says. ''Small talk is not being encouraged in the workplace. No one has the time.''

Yet, every December we're suddenly sprung from cubicles and offices and encouraged to small talk - without the aid of PowerPoint, spreadsheets and e-mail emoticons. How can you avoid being tongue-tied, or worse, the dreaded ''foot in mouth'' disease at your next office party? By planning ahead, say the specialists.

Preparty prep: Before diving uninhibited into the festivities or skipping them altogether, Karen Berg, the president and chief executive of CommCoreStrategies in White Plains, N.Y., suggests reconsidering your approach. ''Every holiday party is really a 'festive office meeting;' an opportunity to network and gain face time with those who might influence your career,'' says Berg. ''Make decisions based on that - what to wear, what to say, how to act, and what's on the agenda.''

Andrea Nierenberg, author of ''Nonstop Networking: How to Improve Your Life, Luck and Career,'' advises partygoers to prepare by reading the newspaper, a recent trade or industry journal, and the company's website. Since work is often the common ground at such events, you'll be able to offer an item of interest and ask relevant questions.

But what if you aren't talking shop with colleagues, but instead speaking with your bosses' spouse? Colleen Rickenbacher, author of ''Be on your Best Business Behavior: How to Avoid Social and Professional Faux Pas,'' suggests reading at least one nontrade periodical, like Time or Newsweek, for interesting tidbits. If you have a large office where you don't regularly interact with everyone, Rickenbacher also recommends reviewing your office list before you go, and checking with party planners to see if they might have a spouse/guest list, too.

Pocket phrases and ice breakers: At the event, specialists agree it's easier to break the ice by approaching either a loner or a small group (three or four guests). Marisa D'Vari, author of ''Building Buzz: How to Reach and Impress Your Target Audience,'' often uses the following opening line when meeting a group of unfamiliar colleagues or guests: ''Hi, you all seemed to be having such an interesting conversation, I wanted to introduce myself ... '' D'Vari emphasizes that, ''The important thing [about any opening line] is to raise the positive energy level in the room.'' She cautions against starting any conversation by criticizing someone or complaining about the event.

Illustration/Randy Stevens

Keep conversations flowing by asking open-ended questions requiring more than a simple ''yes'' or ''no'' response. Oak Park, Ill. image and etiquette consultant, Jill Bremer, suggests the following for casual acquaintances: ''How has your year been?'' or ''Catch me up on what you've been doing.'' Other safe questions involve holiday plans, sports, books, theater, movies, food, museums and travel. Delve deeper into conversations by asking, ''Could you tell me a little more about that?'' And if the talk turns to work, remember, this is a ''festive office meeting,'' so keep it positive. Save the gripes for Monday morning's department meeting.

Conversation killers and taboo topics: With newspaper headlines rotating between religion and politics, it may be difficult to discuss current affairs without invoking one, if not both of these normally taboo topics. Surprisingly, specialists seem to be a bit more lenient about their appropriateness. Most say they can be broached, but only where you know in advance that you share a similar viewpoint or interest. But what if a conflict ensues? Sherron Bienvenu, a senior partner with Communications Solutions in Orem, Utah, uses a standard line like ''I have a lot of hope everything will work out,'' and then changes the topic. If pressed, she suggests discussing a personal experience (like living near a recently closed church), before changing the subject or moving on.

Another strategy for staying neutral is to contain your inner comedian. In today's diverse community, people cringe whenever anyone starts off with, ''I heard a good one the other day,'' because even a seemingly harmless joke can offend. Similarly, beware the potentially controversial compliment. Debra Fine, author of ''The Fine Art of Small Talk,'' says that it's acceptable to compliment possessions (jewelry, handbag, new car, tie, or even an outfit) and behavior (''I really appreciate how you've directed our department meetings and kept them on time this year.'') But, avoid complimenting on appearance as there is too much room for offense. New York attorney Steven M. Stimell, a labor and employment partner at Bryan Cave, LLP says, ''If you have a conversation that 'crosses the line,' it may expose your employer (and you) to a potential lawsuit.''

Pregnant pauses and parachute phrases: We've all been there. That awkward pause. The loss of eye contact. Now is the time to either bring up an interesting article or offer one of your prepared exit lines or ''parachute phrases.''

Networking specialist Nierenberg often uses, ''I've enjoyed talking with you, but I'll give you an opportunity to talk with some of the other folks here, and I hope to catch up again later.''

Taking a similar approach, Fine looks for verbal and physical cues to signal when she should make her exit. If she is the one trying to break off a conversation (generally good practice after 5-7 minutes of conversation), she likes to give people a warning. ''It's been really interesting chatting with you, but I promised myself to catch up with a couple more people here tonight before I leave.'' She then gives them a minute or two before politely excusing herself.

Keeping it simple: Small talk may seem like a foreign language to you now, but it can be learned, promises Fine, a former civil engineer and now small talk specialist.

Make preparations either right before the event, or, as Simmers recommends, practice during the year. Still, if all these preparations make you even more nervous, professional life coach, Jim Accetta, of Chicago promotes a different approach. ''Forget about you for a while,'' he says. ''Simply take a genuine interest in others; ask questions; and learn more about their interests.''

Whatever your small talk strategy, be wary of using liquor to loosen up your lingo. Office parties are an effective way to gain face time and build relationships. If you've taken the time to prepare, don't dumb down your small talk by overindulging.

The 10 biggest mistakes in holiday party conversation

SOURCE: Don Gabor, author, "How to Start a Conversation and Make Friends"

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