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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

An Office Holiday Party Survival Guide for Introverts and Shy People

people celebrating at a holiday party
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Don’t tell my boss, but I was thinking of skipping my office holiday party. It’s not because I hate my co-workers or worry that it’s going to be incredibly lame. It’s just that I have a tendency to experience intense shyness at social functions—even ones I’ve helped plan! And while I’m being honest, I have to admit that I’m not looking forward to being my husband’s plus one at his office holiday party either.

Many people who are introverted or shy, like me, dread holiday party season. All that socializing is draining for introverts, who often feel overstimulated, even anxious, in large groups. Shy people, too, may feel anxious at office holiday parties but for different reasons; it comes from a place of fear rather than a depletion of energy. If you’re shy, you might enjoy socializing with co-workers and their dates but also worry that you’re being judged.

Unfortunately, it might not be in any of our best professional interests to decline office holiday party invitations. According to new research from the staffing firm OfficeTeam, 66% of managers say there’s an unwritten rule that employees should be there. Basically, it looks good to the higher ups when you make the effort to celebrate with the team.

So you and I will need to fight the urge to come up with an excuse about why we won’t be attending the company party or are bailing as a plus one at somebody else’s holiday event. (Although, in the latter scenario, remember that the pressure will really be on our dates to do most of the schmoozing and networking anyway.)

Instead let’s charge ahead with these six expert tips to help the introverted and shy alike survive—and maybe even enjoy!—any office holiday party.

1. Think Positively

It’s easy to focus on all the reasons you don’t want to attend a party. Instead, Thea Orozco, who writes the website Introvertology, recommends considering the positives. Will there be free food? Will you be in an interesting part of town? Will this be an opportunity to dress up?

“Whatever the reason, write it down on your calendar so that when it’s time to start getting ready to leave you can focus on the positive parts of the party versus the draining or anxiety-producing parts,” she says.

If you’re having trouble coming up with worthwhile reasons, think back to a past event that turned out to be pretty cool. A friend of mine, an introvert, was once incredibly nervous about attending a fancy holiday party in a fine art gallery. To her surprise, there were art stations set up around the room where guests could make splatter paintings, pose for a character sketch, or try their hand at watercolors. Not only did these activities make great conversation starters, they also allowed her to take a few much-needed breaks from mingling.

2. Carpool With a Co-worker

When you’re introverted or shy, trying to locate a familiar face in a sea of strangers can feel incredibly uncomfortable. That’s why marriage and family therapist Katie Ziskind encourages heading into the event with a work friend, which can make navigating the party more manageable. Arriving on time or even a few minutes early, before the event becomes too noisy and crowded, can also help you feel more at ease.

Plus, it’s markedly less intimidating to join a conversation in progress when you approach a group with a more outgoing sidekick. Your friend may even be able to introduce you to colleagues they know who you might not have met yet.

3. Put on a Happy Face

Shyness is often mischaracterized as aloofness, but it’s fear rather than disinterest that causes us to stand near the perimeter of a room, unsmiling, with our arms crossed. Because we’re often uncomfortable initiating conversations at parties, we wait for others to approach us, without realizing our body language might be giving off seriously unfriendly vibes.

Instead, Stephanie Naznitsky, executive director of OfficeTeam, recommends practicing positive body language like smiling and making eye contact to encourage others to engage us in dialogue.

4. Hide in the Bathroom (Seriously)

While it may be tempting to rush to the bar when your introversion or shyness starts interfering with your ability to socialize, you’re better off heading to the bathroom instead. According to Dave Bowden, author of Ready to Roar: How Shy, Quiet, Self-Doubting Guys Become Strong, Charming, Self-Confident Men, a few trips to the restroom can provide you with much-needed breaks from all the chit-chatting and noise, allowing you to recharge before reemerging.

In the privacy of a bathroom stall, you can practice slow breathing exercises, call a friend or loved one for a pep talk, or pop in headphones to briefly listen to soothing music, all of which can help to decrease stress and anxiety.

5. Be a Good Listener

Bridgett Edwards, a shy communications coordinator, never looks forward to office holiday parties. It’s “the anticipation that I dread the most,” she says. “They end up being fun but I get into my own head thinking about potential conversations.”

An easy way to get people talking is to ask open-ended questions that begin with “what,” “why,” and “how” rather than ones that can be answered with a “yes” or “no.” So instead of asking somebody if they like their job, ask them what about their job they like the most.

“Remember that people love to be listened to and to feel like they are heard, so don’t pressure yourself to be an amazing conversationalist,” says Orozco.

And, as Bowden points out, when you’re attending as a plus one who’s unfamiliar with many of the other guests, you’re free to ask a whole host of innocuous questions that can make conversation super easy. Start with simple open-ended questions about what they do at the company or what made them want to get into that field. “These questions not only give people a chance to talk about themselves, which they love, but [also] often result in them then asking the same of you,” he says. “The conversation practically takes care of itself.”

6. Have an Exit Strategy

In her book, Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introvert’s Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You’d Rather Stay Home), author Morra Aarons-Mele, who also has social anxiety, writes about her mismatched relationship with her extroverted husband, Nicco. “I want a nice quiet dinner, Nicco wants to invite friends and family. I want to be alone. He picks up the phone and calls people. He loves cocktail and dinner parties,” she writes. So “we have a rule: I’m allowed to leave any event after 90 minutes.”

Heidi McBain, licensed professional counselor, endorses a similar strategy for managing holiday parties. “Shy people generally want to connect with others, but they can be apprehensive and have anxiety around how these interactions are going to play out. Introverts get drained by large groups and too many social interactions,” she explains. And so she suggests giving yourself permission to leave early if you’re not having fun or are feeling drained.

Because I can’t really miss an office holiday party I helped organize, my survival plan includes listening to my colleagues with a smile, keeping my arms down by my sides, and retreating to the bathroom when I need to take a few deep breaths. Hopefully I end up having so much fun, I’m able to use this year’s event as a persuasive reference when I start dreading next year’s party. What’s your plan?