Balancing Fun and Professionalism At The Holiday Office Party


Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D

Are you planning to attend your office holiday party? I hope so. This is a great occasion to relax and have a good time — and can be a highly anticipated, positive antidote to year-end stress. But anytime you combine fun with professionalism, it can also be a challenge. Here are ten tips to insure that you make a great impression while you mix and mingle at the office party. 

1) Prepare your “party intro”

The way you greet your fellow party-goers can have a huge impact on their perception of you. The best party introductions combine business information with a personal twist. An example would be: “Hi, I’m Stacy/Steven from Marketing. I’ve been with XYZ for just a few months, and this is the first social event I’ve attended. It’s so nice to meet co-workers face-to-face.” 

2) Pick your spot

Behavioral Investigator, Vanessa Van Edwards, advises stationing yourself near the end of the bar so that, as people exit with a drink in hand, you can start a conversation with something as simple as “Hi, is the red wine good?” Her second favorite place to stand is at the end of the buffet line, so that right after people fill their plate you can invite them to join you in finding a place to sit. She also notes that you can easily see by people’s body language which folks are searching for a place to go (or scanning the room for a friendly face) and would welcome the invitation. 

3) Look approachable

Some nonverbal behaviors can bring out the best in people. Smiling is one of them, as it directly influences how other people respond. When you smile at someone, they almost always smile in return. And, because facial expressions trigger corresponding feelings, the smile you get back actually changes that person’s emotional state in a positive way. 

You probably knew that. But did you also know that slow onset smiles lead to even more positive reactions? So, rather that approaching people with a grin, begin with a slight smile and let it grow organically. And don’t close off. If you want people to see you as comfortable and approachable, don’t cross your arms and legs or use objects (your drink or plate of food) as a barrier. Doing so makes you look guarded or insecure. Instead, hold your glass or plate to the side of your body so that the core of your body is exposed. 

Above all, resist the urge to check your email or texts. Instead give other party-goers your full attention. (This is a great time to improve your eye contact by making a practice of noticing the eye color of everyone you speak with at the event.) 

4) Take a stand

To project a poised and professional look, it is important to stand tall. Slumping by rounding your shoulders and collapsing into your chest makes you look vulnerable and submissive. When you stand tall, with your shoulders pulled back, your feet about hip-distance apart, and your head held high, you assume a posture of confidence and self-esteem. 

Balancing Fun and Professionalism At The Holiday Office Party5) Limit your alcohol

There are many reasons why you should watch your drinking at an office party. (And, I’m sure, many career-limiting examples of colleagues who didn’t!) But one reason that might not be as obvious as others is that alcohol impairs your ability to read body language. Brain imaging research found that alcohol reduces the ‘coupling’ between the amygdala and the orbitofrontal cortex – a part of the prefrontal cortex – and inhibits the ability to assess and properly respond to nonverbal cues. So if you want to accurately gauge how people are reacting to you, and how to respond effectively, it’s advisable to stay sober. 

6) Dress for success

Clothes make a visual statement about how you see yourself. Van Edwards and her research team recently conducted a study about the impact of colors on other people’s perception. They found that if you wear blue, you appear to be calm, wise, and stable. Wearing orange or yellow makes you look positive and upbeat. And red denotes passion, attention, and sexiness. 

Your appearance is part of your personal brand. Think about the impression you want to make and dress to accentuate it. You might even choose to add a “conversation opener” – a colorful scarf or unique piece of jewelry. In general, stylish and fun is fine, but flashy or too revealing sends a message all its own. 

7) Reach out and touch someone

Usually considered to be the most primitive and essential form of communication, we are programmed to feel closer to someone who has touched us. In fact, touch is so potent and effective that a study on handshakes (by the Income Center for Trade Shows) showed that people are two times more likely to remember you if you shake hands with them. The trade-show researchers also found that people react to those with whom they shake hands by being more open and friendly. 

Holiday office parties offer lots of opportunities for handshakes and even hugs among colleagues, but be aware that not everyone likes to be embraced or thinks it is an appropriate greeting in a business setting. Van Edwards advises those who are reluctant to hug to subtly angle their left shoulder away and quickly offer their right hand for a shake. Watch for this signal and respect people’s right to choose. 

8) Get up close – but not too personal

The anthropologist, Edward Hall, coined the word “proxemics” to describe phenomena like territoriality among business colleagues. And it was he who first noted the physical zones in which people feel most comfortable dealing with one another.

At an office party, there’s nothing wrong with leaning slightly toward the person you’re talking to; in fact, this body language cue indicates that you’re engaged and interested. But be respectful of other people’s space. If you’re at a business function in the U.S., (even if that function is a party) never get closer than 18 inches. If you get any closer, you risk entering the “intimate zone” that Americans reserve for family and loved ones. Few people will feel comfortable if you invade this personal space uninvited. (Another reason why some people may not like hugs.) 

9) Buddy up

Gayle Hallgren-Rezac and Judy Thomson, co-authors, WORK THE POND! Use the Power of Positive Networking to Leap Forward in Work and Life, advise you to work the room in pairs. The role of each “tag teammate” is to keep an eye on the other person, to make introductions, and to make sure that both of you are comfortably engaged in conversations. 

10) Show your gratitude

Another tip from these master networkers is to seek out the person who is hosting the party. (This is probably an executive or senior leader.) Thank him or her for sponsoring the event. You don’t have to go overboard with praise, but acknowledge that you appreciate the chance to connect with some new people you wouldn’t have met otherwise. If this senior person is open to continuing the conversation, mention something positive that your team is doing. (Think of one or two examples ahead of time.) Of course, this is also a perfect time to thank all your co-workers who have been helpful or supportive in the past year. 

If lucky enough to be invited, you definitely should attend your office holiday party. Don’t pass up the opportunity to have fun while expanding your network, building your personal brand — and making a great impression! 

About the Author: Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., is a keynote speaker at business meetings and conferences in 25 countries. Her list of over 300 clients include firms such as Google, LinkedIn, Petroleos de Venezuela, Dairy Farm in Hong Kong, Petrofac in the UAE, SCA Hygiene in Germany, Women’s Leadership Conference, Trinidad. She is a leadership presence coach, the best selling author of twelve books, including “The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help or Hurt How You Lead, and the creator of LinkedInLearning”s video course, “Body Language for Leaders.” Carol has served as adjunct faculty at John F. Kennedy University in the International MBA program and at the University of California in the Executive Education Department. She is a current faculty member for the Institute for Management Studies. Contact Carol by email: Carol@CarolKinseyGoman, through her website:, or call 1-510-526-1727.

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