Don’t think nobody sees you loitering at the margins of your office holiday party. There you very much are, clutching a beer and making tepid small talk (probably about the party itself) with your best work friend. As soon as you’re done with your drink, you’re planning to look for a chance to slip out.
Company holiday parties can be awkward, tedious, and/or obnoxious affairs depending on what your coworkers are like, among (many) other things. But the truth is you can use them to do a little strategic, in-house networking. Yes, that does mean chatting up coworkers you haven’t met, but that can be way easier than talking to random strangers at networking events. Here’s a rundown of everyone you should talk to before you cut out of your office holiday party–and what to say (and avoid saying) when you do.
Peers You Don’t Know
Do this at a bare minimum, even if you can’t work up the nerve to speak with anyone senior to you. In fact, you can make it a group affair.
My first few years in the workforce, I remember feeling there was safety in numbers at company social events. Basically everyone under 30 in my whole department would form an unwieldy scrum within cupcake-grabbing distance of the refreshments table (there were never not cupcakes, this being the early 2010s), and we’d just while away the time chatting among ourselves–not exactly the best use of time. So if you’re in a cluster and you spot another cluster of peers you recognize from around the office but don’t know personally, just merge clusters. This can take some of the pressure off in all kinds of networking scenarios.
What not to talk about. “Don’t focus on work-related subjects,” advises Sean Kim, a podcast host and the CEO of language-learning platform Rype. “Holiday parties are a rare opportunity to connect on a human level that would be neither appropriate nor productive on a regular workday.” So avoid stuff like, “Oh cool, what do you do over in marketing? Do you like it?”
What to talk about instead. Look for shared experiences, Ariane Hunter, founder of the coaching agency Project She Went for Her Dreams, suggests, offering an easy one: “What podcasts are you listening to right now? Which ones do you recommend?” Best of all, these types of questions are nervous-cluster-friendly. They give everyone a chance to weigh in collectively, whereas if you just ask about one person’s role, only that person can answer.
Another easy way to find common ground, says career coach Lynn Carroll, “is to bring up something you’d like to see the company tackle in the future, something you are truly interested in.” This can help you avoid complaining about work and focus on hopes and solutions–always a great networking tactic, Carroll explains. “Ask your coworker if she thinks your company will ever venture into virtual-reality training programs, establish an office on the opposite coast, or add an onsite daycare center.”
Someone You Avoid Or Don’t Get Along With
What better way to get into the holiday spirit than extending a little empathy toward coworkers you aren’t so keen on? Career coach Jenn DeWall points out that holiday parties encourage everyone to ease up “and be more casual,” making the functions a great chance “to see a more personal side” of those people. Strengthening or rebuilding weak relationships around the office is a smart career move, not least because it shows off and sharpens that all-important emotional intelligence of yours.
What not to talk about. Don’t bring up past slights like the passive-aggressive email chain you two traded a few weeks ago–that’s icy water under the snow-covered bridge.
What to talk about instead. The fact that you came over to chat is itself a meaningful gesture, so keep the stakes low and the conversation light (even trite if you have to): “Ask them questions about their holiday plans, family, or maybe even what they’re enjoying about the party,” DeWall suggests.
“The point is to try and discover another way to connect with them that doesn’t revolve around work,” she explains, especially if you’ve stepped on each other’s toes in the past. “Making it more personal can improve communications and partnership opportunities. You might find that after the party you’ll see the person in a whole new light and will no longer dread interactions with them.”
Another idea? “Offer unique, personalized, and genuine compliments that you’ve noticed through your working relationship, but never had a chance to say,” Kim recommends. Chances are you can find something positive about somebody no matter how aggravating your other experiences with them have been. “When you actually mean what you say,” he adds, “it’s hard to come across as a suck-up or fake.”
Your Direct Boss
Making small talk with your manager might be easy since you work closely with them anyway. But you might find yourself running out of conversation topics for the same reason–you’re all caught up!
What not to talk about. As Carroll points out, “Superficial questions don’t leave much of an impression, but oversharing personal drama can be a turnoff.” So while anodyne chatter about holiday plans won’t get you much mileage, neither will whining about petty work issues or spilling your guts about your personal life.
What to talk about instead. Hunter has a straightforward formula: “Make conversations 20% about work.” So that might mean telling your boss “about your new ideas for a work project, then offer to follow up when you’re back in the office or at the next team meeting.” But you should slide that into a wider, personable conversation, and to do that, Hunter says to let your boss lead the way: “The best way to make an impression is to listen and ask great questions.” Now’s a great time to find out a little more about your boss’s career, for instance. Hunter suggests open-ended questions like, “How did you become a [job title]? What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?”
A Senior Leader Or Two
“It’s unlikely that higher-up executives and managers want to talk more about work than they necessarily have to,” Kim explains, “so showing genuine interest in who they are–not their job role–will allow you to stand out.” But that doesn’t mean steering clear of work-related subjects altogether. It just matters how you approach them.
What not to talk about. Definitely avoid, “Oh hi, what do you do here?” Hunter advises–never go in ignorant. “Do your research,” she says. “Know who will be at the company party before you arrive.” This way you can target the higher-ups you want to get a word in with.
What to talk about instead. Carroll suggests asking yourself, “Is there an area of your company you know little about? Approach a director in that program and ask what challenges they’re grappling with. You’ll make connections across program areas, and this will increase the reach of your network, possibly opening up new career options as well.” Branching out into unfamiliar territory can help you avoid talking about the minutiae of specific work projects that Kim recommends avoiding.
DeWall agrees it’s smart to think bigger-picture when approaching execs. “A great starter conversation could be talking about the strategic initiatives for the coming year,” she suggests. “It’s easy, it shows your interest, and the executive will likely take the lead of the conversation, making it easier for you to manage.”
At the end of the day, adds Kim, “it’s better not to overthink how you’re going to make the best impression. Just focus on getting to know the person as who they are, not what their role in the company is, and be unique, personal, and genuine. Often, it’s as simple as that.”