Evening show


1. Etiquette at an office party? Why, these people have been socializing happily every working day of their lives, give or take a few melees, rumors, and complaint petitions. All it takes to turn this into holiday merriment is a bit of greenery looped around the office—the staff will soon be looped, too. Surely it is enough that the annual Christmas party has the magic ingredients: time off from work, free food and drink, and a spirit of fun replacing such ugly work realities as sexual harassment.

2. Furthermore, partygoers figure, it offers relief from such pesky obligations as thanking anyone or being kind to wallflowers because there really aren’t any hosts. Nobody has to pay (that same Nobody who generously provides the telephone line for long-distance personal calls), and so nobody’s feelings need be considered.

3. This is all pure hospitality—there for the taking, like the office-supplied felt-tipped pens everyone has been pocketing all year. Out of the natural goodness of its corporate heart and the spirit of the holiday season, the company wishes only to give its employees a roaring good time, and the employees, out of loyalty and the thrill of getting to know their bosses off-duty as equals, delight in the opportunity.

4. For those still dimly aware of the once-standard give-and-take of real social life, this no-fault approach to business entertaining seems a godsend. In the now-rare domain of genuine society, hosts are supposed to plan and pay for the entertainment of their guests, on their own time and in their own houses. Guests have strict duties, as well—from answering invitations to cooperating with all arrangements, even to the extent of pronouncing them perfectly lovely.

5. Business entertaining appears to remove the burdens of time, effort, money, individual responsibility—and the etiquette connected with them. The people who do the planning are paid for their trouble, so those who benefit need not consider they have incurred a debt. Why, the annual Christmas party ought to be an inspiration to lower-level employees to work their way into realms where company-sponsored partying can be enjoyed all year long.

6. Not so fast. Flinty Miss Manners does not recognize any holidays from etiquette. (Employees, if not employers, should consider themselves lucky that she is only on the Party Committee, not the one that might take up ethical questions about those pens and calls.) Office parties differ from private ones but are no freer from rules.

7. If it were indeed true that everyone has a better time without etiquette, Miss Manners could easily be persuaded to take the day off. But having long served on the Office Party Etiquette Cleanup subcommittee, she is aware that things generally do not go well when there is no recognized etiquette and everyone is forced to improvise.

8. Let us look at all this spontaneous, carefree fun: There being no proper place for the boss, he or she hangs around the door, concerned about mixing with everyone. It might discourage hospitable bosses to see guests staring at them in horror and then slithering in by a side door. But etiquette’s solution of having everyone greeted in a receiving line was rejected as too stiff. So one can hardly blame employees for recalling a long-ingrained principle of the workplace: Seeing the boss and having a good time are best not scheduled at the same time.

9. Desperate to make the time count, the boss grabs the nearest available person and starts delivering practiced words about the contribution he makes to their great enterprise. The reaction is not quite what was hoped for. Discreet questioning establishes that this is an employee’s guest. He doesn’t work for the company, recognize the boss, or appreciate the attention—and, as a matter of fact, has only a passing acquaintance with the employee who issued the invitation. What this guest wants is not professional fellowship but a fresh drink, if the boss would kindly step out of the way.

10. Now, the reason the invitation said "and guest" was to avoid the ticklish issue of who is still married to whom and what the spouse calls itself. Last year, unmarried employees were furious when their partners were not included, and married employees complained that the forms by which their spouses were addressed were offensive: "Mrs." offended women who preferred "Ms.," and wives who had the same surnames outraged everybody who didn't. This year, the complaints will be from spouses who were not told that there was a party or who were told that spouses weren't invited—but found out.

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