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How to avoid being an office-party casualty

Save sexy clothes for gatherings with friends, watch your alcohol intake
/ Source: The Associated Press

Office holiday parties are like blind dates: Wear the wrong shirt, tell the wrong joke or drink one too many martinis and your potentially happy future is over before it began. Each year amid the jovial flow of cocktail franks, gin-and-tonics and choruses of “Fill Me Up, Buttercup,” someone becomes a footnote in their company’s holiday folklore, forever labeled as the guy who thought it would be funny to teach the boss’s wife to dance the Macarena.

The delicate task of navigating this half-social, half-professional occasion leaves many employees wishing they could simply stay home.

But according to executive coach Marjorie Brody, the office holiday party is an ideal opportunity to raise your profile at work in a positive way and make connections that can help your career.

“Most people think it’s a party, and either they don’t want to go or they’ll go and just eat and drink with their friends. Both of those are mistakes,” Brody says. “It’s a chance to be talking to people you don’t normally speak to and a good opportunity to create an impression.”

But how do you make the most of the opportunity without seeming opportunistic?

And how do you participate in the party without partying too hard?

Hmmmm, what to wear ...
Image consultant Colleen Abrie says it begins with the proper wardrobe. “You’ve got three seconds or less to make a first impression and about two years to change that if it doesn’t go well,” she says. “What do you want people to remember about you the next day, the next week?”

It’s safest to dress conservatively, but it’s also important to know your industry’s culture: The same outfit that might be provocative at an investment firm could seem oddly tame at a splashy party for a record label.

“If you’re a new employee, it’s fine to pick someone in your office whom you consider a mentor, or even somebody who’s not going to make fun of you for being neurotic, and say, ’Listen, what are you going to wear? I’m just a little worried about choosing the right outfit,”’ says Caroline Tiger, author of “How To Behave: A Guide to Modern Manners for the Socially Challenged.”

If you long to make a fashion statement, experts advise doing it with jewelry, accessories or hairstyle. For women, dangling earrings and strappy high heels add a festive touch to a basic black dress without veering into excessively sexy territory. And men can pair a traditional suit with a boldly colored shirt without losing their corporate look.

Pick one makeup element to emphasize
Style expert and former model Diane Irons advises similar restraint with makeup. “Whatever you wore in the office, you need to darken,” she says. “But nothing too garish. You want a monochromatic color palette.”

One safe bet is balancing dramatic eye makeup with neutral lips, or colorful lips with minimal eye makeup. “You can always carry a few well-chosen accessories and some extra makeup, if you’re not sure,” Irons says. “Have some kind of emergency kit with you.”

Once you look the part, it’s time to tackle the event itself. Before the party, find out a bit about your boss’s supervisors. Perhaps one shares your love of the Boston Red Sox and another has four kids, just like you. Come prepared with a few topics to discuss and a list of people you’d like to meet.

“You’re looking for something in common to show you’re interested in building relationships and going a step above,” says Brody. You’re also emphasizing that you’re a well-rounded person with interests other than work.

Introduce yourself and mention what you’ve got in common, but keep things brief. “Let your boss’s boss know where you fit into the hierarchy and a bit about what you do,” says Marion Gellatly, president of the Association of Image Consultants International. “But don’t bend their ear. ... See if they do more inquiring.”

Brody advises ending a chat by creating an opportunity to further the connection. “You can say, ‘This has really been enjoyable. Let me stop by your office with something I’d like to give you.”’ Then follow up days later with some information or an e-mail about the topic you discussed. Then stop.

But what about those who freeze up at the thought of networking at a party?

“Coax yourself into going by saying, ‘I’ll go briefly and I’ll make an appearance,”’ suggests Tiger. “Usually when you trick yourself into something like that, you do end up having a good time and staying.”

Gellatly advises shy clients to ask others about themselves, and have a few questions ready. “Something as simple as, ‘What keeps you busy when you’re away from work?’ opens people up to small talk,” she says.

Watch the alcoholAlcohol may seem like a helpful way to beat shyness, but experts say to avoid it. Two alcoholic drinks for the evening, alternated with soft drinks or water, is probably a safe rule. An even better bet is to skip it entirely.

“You don’t have to feel compelled to drink anything,” says Brody. “You can carry a glass of ginger ale or Sprite around.” If you do drink alcohol, be sure to eat too.

Another way to get involved in a positive way is to circulate in the crowd and introduce your acquaintances to each other.

And as you leave, be sure to say thank you to your hosts, just as you would at someone’s home. It’s a subtle way of making sure your supervisors know you were there.

What about the person who wakes up with the post-party realization that they’ve made a mistake? If it was minor, it’s probably best not to draw more attention to it. But really blatant missteps, such as drunken behavior, do require an apology to anyone directly offended.