Talk Smart at the Holiday Office Party

Talk Smart at the Holiday Office Party

Stay clear of conversation faux pas that can derail your career.

By Don Gabor

As a Toastmaster, you know that all speaking is public speaking – whether you are giving a Table Topics presentation at your local club or making small talk with colleagues and clients at the holiday office party. Of course, if an “ah” or “um” slips into one of your speeches, probably no one (except perhaps another Toastmaster) will ever know.

However, make one of the following conversation faux pas at the holiday office party and your career and professional image could be headed for trouble. Here are the most common career-crunching mistakes:

1. Making inappropriate comments – even in jest
Nothing can ruin a budding or even established career faster than, “letting your hair down,” in a way that keeps your colleagues whispering, “Can you believe what he said?” Using sexual innuendo or telling off-color jokes at the holiday work party is a sure-fire way to attract attention, but not the kind that will boost your career. This blunder can quickly send your prospects for advancement into a downward spiral. Never forget that the office party is a business – not social – situation, where most of the rules of business etiquette apply.

2. Not shaking hands when the opportunity presents itself
If it is a part of your culture to shake hands when introducing yourself or greeting people you know, do you hesitate to extend your hand when you meet a member of the opposite sex? You might be surprised, but plenty of people are confused about this critical part of introductions at office gatherings. Blame it on decades-old etiquette that instructed a gentleman to wait for a lady to extend her hand first, but that is as passé as a lady dropping a hankie to start a conversation with a handsome passerby! Today, not offering to shake hands with a member of the opposite sex will peg a man as sexist and a woman as unsure of herself. Therefore, at office celebrations and everywhere else, for that matter – excluding for religious, cultural or physical reasons – both men and women should take the initiative to shake hands with everyone they meet.

3. Talking only with your officemates
Chatting for a few minutes at seasonal office gatherings with your work buddies is all part of the fun, but if you stay ensconced in your closed circle of friends for too long, new co-workers, prospects or others will quickly cast you and your colleagues as cliquish, disinterested and not open to outsiders. Staying in one place too long, whether you are talking to someone or nibbling on the appetizers, will also give the impression that you’re shy, self- conscious or lacking confidence. Instead, chat with your buddies for a few minutes and then move to different areas of the room to introduce yourself to others you want to get to know better.

4. Asking more than three closed-ended questions in a row
“Do you work in our office?”, “How long have you worked here?” or “Who is your supervisor?” Yikes! You’re at a holiday office party – not a job interview or an interrogation. Asking three or more closed-ended questions in a row will certainly stifle conversation and make others feel uncomfortable. Instead, show attentiveness and a desire to find common ground by asking open-ended questions that encourage others to elaborate and reveal free information. Begin questions with “Why...” or “What do you think about...” to accomplish this. Then based on what you hear that interests you, respond with follow-up questions and information of your own.

                    “The holiday office party is a great place to make small talk,
                    establish rapport and build better relationships with
                    your colleagues, acquaintances and clients.”

5. Talking too much or too little about yourself
“So, enough about my job! Let me show you a picture of my kids (cats, car, etc.)!” Sure, people love to talk about themselves, their pets, kids and grandchildren, but if you are the one doing all the talking at the office party, you could quickly become a bore to the other guests. On the other hand, if you are too tight-lipped, then people may see you as secretive, defensive or lacking interest and enthusiasm. The remedy is to exchange information about various light subjects at about the same rate so that you both know what the other enjoys and likes to talk about. Offer some information and then allow the other person enough time to fully respond with information of their own.

6. Complaining or gossiping about colleagues or clients
You might be tempted and it may even be well-deserved, but never get involved in a gripe session about a colleague or client while attending a holiday office party. As obvious as this faux pas is, people seem to do it all the time, especially after a few drinks. Even if you’re not the one making the crass remarks, if word gets back to the “offending person” you will still pay the price long after the party is over. If possible, politely excuse yourself from the conversation as quickly as you can. However, if you find yourself stuck with this group, then take the initiative and bring up something that moves the discussion to a more positive topic.

7. Talking about politics or controversial subjects
It never fails – there always seems to be at least one person at the office party who likes to snag colleagues into heavy political “discussions” or offer long-winded lectures about his or her pet social issues. The trap often begins with the seemingly innocent words, “Don’t you think that...?” or “In my humble opinion....” However, if you rebut with even a few words you’ll be in for an earful – and not the kind of conversation that most people at parties enjoy. Furthermore, discussing controversial topics in this situation often polarizes people who otherwise get along. The best thing to do when someone brings up a political or controversial subject is say, “I never discuss such topics at parties.” Then it’s up to you to change the discussion to a less volatile subject. 

Holiday Office Parties Offer Golden Opportunities to Hone Your Communication Skills
The holiday office party is a great place to make small talk, establish rapport and build better relationships with your colleagues, acquaintances and clients. As long as you focus on upbeat subjects that lead to sharing common professional and personal interests, goals and experiences, you’ll have plenty to talk about while boosting your career and honing your communication skills! 

Don Gabor is a professional speaker and author. His newest book is Turn Small Talk into Big Deals: Using 4 Key Conversation Styles to Customize Your Networking Approach, Build Relationships, and Win More Clients (McGraw- Hill Professional). Reach him at