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The office holiday party: More awkward than meeting the parents

(Illustration by Martin Kozlowski/For the Washington Post)

Jasmine Carpenter was eager to take her boyfriend of two months to her company’s Christmas party for the first time in 2013.

Then she gave him a once-over.

“I was like, ‘You look tacky,’ ” she recalls, laughing. “He had on a burgundy sweater with a collared shirt, which was nice, but then his pants were, like, some off-shade green. I get that it’s Christmas time, but . . . ”

We’ll take it from here, Jasmine.

But it’s the office Christmas party: an institution that continues to exist largely so that your colleagues can pry into your personal life. Because, as the invite explicitly requests, “Bring your SO for fun and merriment.”

To escape the December madness, I turn my home into a holiday-free zone

Corporate translation: “We are looking forward to finally answering the absolutely work-related question that has plagued us in fiscal year 2015.”

Which is: What. Is. Your. Deal?

“People always ask, ‘Are you seeing somebody?’ So of course you can’t say, ‘No, I’m going to leave my boyfriend at home,’ ” says Carpenter, a 26-year-old auditor from Temple Hills, Md.

Carpenter is still with her boyfriend, so clearly he’s now officially Christmas-party material. But Carpenter is acutely aware of the social code of business, and the date you bring to the holiday get-together, she says, “is an extension of you.”

The annual soiree is not merely an opportunity to don sequins, sip terrible wine and nosh on canapes from Costco. It’s the year’s most crucial social function, the ideal place to rub shoulders and make lasting impressions. Add in our new, casual, cubicle-free open workspaces, and our now pretty much mandatory Facebook friendships with the boss, and it’s impossible to wall off your personal life from your professional life for very long.

Of course, your employers and co-workers mean well. “We work so closely with certain people, you actually get curious about what kind of lives they lead outside the office,” says Thomas Edwards, founder of the dating coaching service the Professional Wingman.

Their slightly invasive questions about what happened to the lovely woman you brought last year? And how soon they should expect wedding invitations? It’s all totally out of love and concern for you. Your happiness is their happiness.

That nerdy colleague in IT who will spend the party twerking with a beautiful wife no one even knew he had? Also their happiness.

Carpenter and her boyfriend met on the Mall, at the celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. And that is an ideal meet-cute story, the kind that, in the retelling, will make colleagues squee, given that it doesn’t involve a bar and a regrettable number of vodka-sodas.

If only we were all so lucky.

Just imagine telling your 60-year-old married boss that you met your date on Tinder. To her, your “we swiped right” digital-age love story conjures up more scandal than, well, an episode of “Scandal.” She read that Vanity Fair article about Tinder’s hook-up culture just like everyone else, and now she has your number, Tinderella.

“For a lot of folks who are younger and just entering the workforce, holiday parties can be a nerve-racking social experience,” confirms Adam Talbot, a 25-year-old speechwriter in the District.

“I’m gay, so that obviously adds an interesting dynamic” to bringing a date, he says, but it isn’t the most nerve-racking element of the party. He was racked with what he calls “introduction anxiety,” when, he says, “you bring your boyfriend, and you introduce him to your boss, and you introduce him to your boss’s boss.”

There’s no getting past this gauntlet.

Fail to invite your long-term partner while you step out in your best cocktail attire, and you may face weeks of the silent treatment. Go stag, and the bosses could unilaterally decide you’re a loner.

But perhaps you should be more afraid of taking the wrong date than taking no date at all. “Your co-workers aren’t going to judge you on your relationship status. They’re going to judge you on the person you bring,” Edwards says. “If you decide to bring someone, have it be someone who is an upstanding citizen.”

Ah, yes, it was there all along, in the invitation’s fine print. Just don’t show up with any someone. Make it the right kind of someone, who projects success, good taste, upward mobility. Someone who would never wear some tacky green pants.

Talbot knows he has the right person on his arm. His partner is a social butterfly, able to sustain a conversation with just about anyone.

“I’m very grateful to be in a relationship with someone who can charm with the best of them,” Talbot says.

But if you’re unsure your date can muster witty banter and don’t want to subject them — or, let’s be real, yourself — to the boss’s scrutiny, a carefully worded argument could have him or her begging you to let them off the hook. Ideally, the conversation won’t come up, Edwards says, but if it does, “You just have to tell them, ‘Listen, it’s going to be much more of an intimate affair, and I really wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing anyone, because I’m not in that space yet.’­ ” Or play up your selflessness: “My co-workers are very judgy, and I just wouldn’t want to put you in a situation where you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.”

Or perhaps, Edwards suggests, we all just need to step back, have a glass of eggnog and view the whole tradition differently.

“The way I have always seen holiday parties is as a way to include important people in your life to have a good time with you, in your workplace,” he says. “It’s just a party with people you know.”


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