December 20, 2012

This dog looks comfortable. (REUTERS/Mariana Bazo)

Our ancestors had it tough, in many ways. Feudalism. Plague. Hostile mammoths. They died young and in great misery, after lives of unabated toil.

But at least they never had to attend an office Christmas party.

This particular indignity is unique to the modern man.

Office parties are Awkward Christmas. Do you like awkwardness and drinking with people you have seen in the elevator? Then you will love office Christmas parties.

Here are some of the fun interactions you can have.

-On your desperate dive toward the bar, you nearly pummel someone who claims to recognize you.

“We’ve met,” she says.

“We totally have met,” you say. You have never, to your knowledge, seen her before in your life. Possibly you once rode an elevator together. If so, her hair must have been different then. You take a long sip of your drink to buy time, gazing deeply into her eyes in the hope that her name will suddenly appear in the air. “Ja—Na—Al—Sa—Li—Za?” you try.

“Skyler,” she says.

“Right,” you say. “Skyler.”

-Someone takes you aside and starts telling you about What This Place Really Needs, If Only They Knew It.

-The Macaroni and Cheese runs out. (THIS IS A FATE WORSE THAN DEATH OR TAXES.)

-On the dance floor, a DJ for a popular radio station is trying to get you to shout the name of your company’s founder and “represent.” No one wants to represent. You suspect that if that founder were alive today, he would not want you to “represent” either.  

It gets more fun the longer it goes on, the way I imagine childbirth probably would if they permitted you to drink during it.

The other inherent awkwardness about these parties is the age gap. Take newspapers. There are two cohorts of people who work for newspapers these days. On one end of the spectrum are the people who remember What It Used To Be Like in the 1980s when money flowed freely from large horns of plenty and you were allowed to “expense” multi-course dinners and dancing girls. Their continued presence gives the paper prestige. Once or twice a year, they write an in-depth, meticulously researched, detail-rich story 9,000 words long that no one reads.

Then there are the more recent hires, all inexpensive, healthy (save the insurance!) people in their 20s who wander around with visions of “Newsies” and “All The President’s Men” dancing in their heads, filing keyword-rich stories eight times daily. 

This interaction can be made even worse if your party happens to be a dance party. 

The DJ always plays the Music of Now. The only people trying to dance to the Music of Now are the people with the Dance Moves of Then. The people who know the Dance Moves of Now watch, mortified, from the islands of hors d’oeuvres, as their immediate supervisors do something that looks like The Funky Chicken. 

In my experience, the first and most visible people on the dance floor are always the Hip People From Accounting and one or two specimens of the Venerable Elders Whose Presence Lends Gravitas To The Enterprise. They dance as if possessed. They dance with the wild abandon of people who have just been fired. Their younger counterparts stand just on the lip of the dance floor, gazing on in horror. Finally, because their boss has taken the floor, they shuffle out and attempt to ride the invisible pony, Gangnam Style. Then they recede, shuddering, to the open bar, along with the Hip People From Accounting.

Awkwardness is my beat, so I made my way out onto the dance floor, sensing a breaking story. So I speak from bitter experience when I say that there is nothing quite as impossible as trying to ride an invisible pony, Gangnam Style, in a way that impresses your boss. It is the stuff of recurrent nightmares. “He seemed hip, yet responsible,” you want your boss to say, reflecting back on the evening. “Some people were just standing there like lumps, but he was out there shaking his groove thang in a way that complied with the company sexual harassment policy.” Later, when you produce the inevitable ill-considered tweet that ends your career, your boss will think of this moment with regret.

Some people have no trouble with this. You watch them, enviously. The spirit of dance has taken over their bodies, and they are quivering from head to foot, like the worshippers once quivered at Apollo’s temple. The fact that you are making this analogy explains perfectly why you have such difficulty at these functions. While you are thinking this, you bump into someone and spill wine down your arm.

The Hip People From Accounting are the first to leave.

Meanwhile, the Venerable Elders are dancing up a storm. And the inevitable Office Party moment comes: that moment when you are Out on the Dance Floor trying to blend into the line dance, when you find that you are in the front row, doing the opposite of what everyone else seems to be doing, waggling when they are leaning and leaning when they are waggling. And they are all looking at you funny, and you have not had enough punch.

That’s these shindigs all over. 

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.