Confession: Office holiday parties feel so awkward to me that I usually skip out on them entirely.
The few times I have made myself attend (or been compelled to do so by a chirpy cheerleader type), I scrambled to the food tray, piling an assortment of snacks on my plate slowly and endlessly just to have something to do. Or, worse, I’ve stood over the buffet with a furrowed brow as if contemplating the most serious question of my life. If I find someone similarly positioned whom I can talk to, it’s sweet relief, but usually, my go-to maneuver is to not show up, blaming extreme busyness.
For the 7 percent of adults who meet the diagnostic criteria of Social Anxiety Disorder (“a very serious condition marked by intense persistent fear of being watched and judged by others,” explains Alicia H. Clark, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist and author of Hack Your Anxiety: How to Make Anxiety Work for You in Life, Love and All That You Do), it can significantly disrupt one’s normal life functioning. But most of us feel social anxiety to varying degrees and in varying situations.
With the holiday party scene upon us, I decided to check in with four psychologists who specialize in social anxiety to break down why corporate get-togethers are so awkward and how to navigate them with greater ease.
“They wouldn’t make movies about office holiday parties if they weren’t universally awkward and difficult,” says Clark. She explains that the office environment is tense with complex relationships, hierarchies, judgements, and expectations, which isn’t exactly the perfect concoction for fun. “Nobody really likes mixing business with pleasure,” she says. Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, who recently published How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, seconds Clark’s point, noting that the expectation of carefree fun within a professional setting creates uncertainty: “There’s this pull to be professional and at the same time you’re at a party, so there’s a tug in the opposite direction to be casual and chummy. It creates a very uncertain mix, which drives anxiety.”
With their help — and that of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy specialist Reid Wilson, Ph.D., author of Stopping the Noise in Your Head : the New Way to Overcome Anxiety and Worry, and Ty Tashiro, Ph.D., author of Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome — I’ve laid out eight ways to avoid breaking a sweat at your office holiday party this year.
1. Acknowledge your anxiety and quiet your inner critic
Clark advises us to push back against the tendency to believe we’re the only ones who feel unsettled by office parties. “Understanding that it’s awkward for everybody gives you permission to feel uncomfortable,” Clark says. When you have that permission, you stop fearing your own anxiety or discomfort, which will keep it at a moderate level, she says. She emphasizes that normalizing emotions as much as possible is key. Otherwise, you’ll amplify your insecurity and fixate on the ways you assume you’re failing to measure up. “The core of social anxiety is the misperception that people are judging you,” she says. Indeed, a recent study found that social anxiety is related to a preoccupation with making errors. As psychologist Reid Wilson puts it: “You project your own self-doubt on to others, as though they are the critics, but it’s really the critic inside your head.” He suggests calling forth a louder, more positive voice that makes a faint whisper of the other — one that says, “You got this!”
2. Go with a friend, go it alone, but don’t skip it
Tashiro recommends rounding up a colleague or two who you feel comfortable with and going together. Say something like, ‘I think I should go to this party thing. You wanna go for a little bit with me?” Since they probably share similar apprehensions, Tashiro says, they’ll likely be happy you asked. Clark adds that if you can’t find someone to buddy up with, use it as an opportunity to work through your discomfort, rather than skip it: “When you avoid anything because you’re afraid of it, you make it bigger. And you make your anxiety bigger,” she says. The benefit of confronting your fear and going it alone is that “it puts you in control and diminishes your anxiety and ultimately — if you keep doing it — grows your confidence,” Clark stresses.
If your significant other is comfortable schmoozing, Tashiro says, bring them and let them do their thing. Not only can they quell your social anxiety, the imperative to introduce them to your colleagues is a perfect and easy conversation starter. If you go it alone, steer near the food table. “I’m a huge fan of standing in an area that poses a high probability of social interaction,” Tashiro says.
3. Come with a game plan
“Think in advance about key people with whom you want to mingle,” Clark says. Maybe you want to get to know a new direct report better, or get a chance to talk with your boss or your boss’s boss. “Seeking out a small handful of people you want to make sure to connect with can give structure to an otherwise structureless event,” she says, which helps reduce anxiety.
If you feel funny about approaching a higher-up or perceive awkwardness with any given co-worker, Clark says you can defuse the tension you feel by taking control of the situation, “The best thing you can do is find a way to walk up to the person and say something kind or positive — the food is so good! — or give a compliment. Keep it open and simple. It gives you the opportunity to swat down negative projections and build healthy collegial relationships.
4. Prepare talking points in advance
Wilson suggests coming to the party with a list of five things you could share about yourself and five questions you can ask colleagues. Crib topics from the newspaper, Wilson says, or broach subjects related to work and your profession. Clark warns to steer clear of the big four — politics, religion, sex, and personal finances — suggesting, instead, that we talk about work-related developments, favorite local restaurants, and vacation plans, or posing non-invasive questions about things you know are of interest to co-workers. “You might think beforehand, I can talk to Susie about being a single woman in her 20s. I can talk to Susanna about her kids. I’ll chat with Joe about travel.” Having a few conversation starters in your back pocket, she says, really helps socially anxious people. But she cautions against pummelling your conversation partner with too many questions. Instead, she suggests, mix questions with personal disclosure. Make it a conversation.
5. If the people you want to talk to are busy, find a friendly face or something to do
Once you enter the scene, armed with talking points, scan the space for friendly faces. “When you look around the room, look for eyes that are looking at you, whether or not you know them,” Clark suggests. “It’s rare that somebody would make eye contact and then not be willing to talk to you if you approached,” she adds. If they’re alone, they’ll be relieved to have found a companion. If you don’t see any amiable eyeballs or entryways into groups, Clark says to do something — walk to the food table, the bar or circle the room. Ty Tashiro recommends walking up to a co-worker and just being frank about how uncomfortable you feel. “Say ‘Hey, I find these things so awkward.’ It’s a really nice point of commiseration and connection,” he says. “People have a surprising amount of empathy for when we feel uncomfortable.” Alternatively, he recommends finding a group that doesn’t appear to be taking themselves too seriously and matter of factly saying: “Hope I’m not interrupting anything. Mind if I join you guys?” He proposes an ingenious solution to the hunt for a friendly face: “It’s a wonderful idea to have a team of greeters who make it their job to make sure you have someone to interact with right off the bat. It’s a real relief for those of us who are introverts.”
6. Stay present, focused and off your phone
When you do start up a conversation, focus on the person you’re talking to, not what you imagine they’re thinking about you. The most common indicator of how people feel about you is how they feel you regard them, Wilson says. So show your conversation partner basic courtesy and respect. Henriksen suggests that getting out of the mindset that people are critiquing you will “help root you in the moment and project your attention outward, which reduces the stress caused by excessive self-focus,” she says. “It really allows us to listen and respond more naturally to the person we’re trying to connect with.” On that note, all the experts recommend you give your full attention to the person you’re talking to — it will make them feel special, which will elevate their estimation of you. Don’t scan the room looking for someone “better” to talk with (it’s rude.) And whether you’re alone or talking with others, refrain from looking at your phone. On the latter point, Clark is firm: “Absolutely avoid screens at parties. They are no help at all. They rob you of an ability to make eye contact with people and connect,” she says. “If you must use your cell phone, leave the room or go to a side of the room and turn away from the crowd.”
7. Go easy on the alcohol
Many of us turn to the quintessential social lubricant to ease our nerves — alcohol. But Tashiro warns us not to imbibe more than two drinks. “Psychological researchers find that most people begin to experience a ‘diminishing return’ on their drinking after drink two,” he says. The anxiety-reducing benefits and mood boosts rapidly descend from there. “Having more than a couple of drinks might help with the first anxiety,” he admits. But puts us at increased risk for a second source of anxiety — the awkward reality of facing our co-workers after our drunken behavior.
8. Give yourself an out if your anxiety level peaks
If you can’t manage your spiralling anxiety, Clark says to give yourself permission to take a break. “Go to the bathroom and reset,” she says. “Maybe in the bathroom you realize the anxiety isn’t subsiding; it’s getting worse; you’ve done your duty and now you need an exit plan. Regroup and go back to gracefully exit,” she says. But whatever you do, she stresses, resist the temptation to in stay in bathroom until the party is over, as I’m inclined to do.
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