How To Not Drink At The Office Christmas Party

Sometimes your inhibitions are actually useful.

Image: Phil Sexton

“Why is drinking at office parties such a thing in the first place?” I asked my husband.

“Movies and TV,” he said. “Movies and TV have made people think office parties are romantic. Like Love, Actually.

“That party’s not romantic, though,” I said. “The thing with Alan Rickman and his secretary ruins his marriage.”

“Yeah, but what about Laura Linney and the guy she likes. Don’t they get together?”

“No, because she fucks it up,” I said. “She finally has Rodrigo shirtless in her bed and she keeps getting up to answer the phone. I can’t even stand to think about it.”

“Is his name really Rodrigo?” my husband asked skeptically.

“Like I would forget the name attached to that torso.”

“Fair enough,” he said.

So maybe Love, Actually proves two points: that people do think office parties are opportunities for their real, non-officey feelings to shine, and that they’re really breeding grounds for awkwardness and regret. Sure, maybe you won’t wake up in the wrong bed at 4 a.m. with cigarette tongue, or throw up in the stall next to your boss. But you could easily say things the sober you would never say or even want to say, to your crush or your boss or your cube-mate, which could be more lastingly awkward and painful than one teeny blip of a sex or vomit mistake.

For that reason alone, it might be wisest to kill your Jim-and-Pam fantasies and treat the office party more like Work: Merriment Edition. Gamify it: go in with a list of people you want to talk to and make it happen. Or pay attention to who isn’t drinking. In my first year of sober work parties, it dawned on me that the world is crammed not only with recovering alcoholics, but with gazillions of other people who just don’t drink — because they’re Muslim or Mormon, because alcohol triggers their migraines, because they don’t want the calories. If the overall vibe is getting too boozy, home in on another non-drinker and chat about something. It doesn’t really matter what. You’re just looking for a place to anchor yourself and a reminder that totally normal people do these things sober all the time.

Gee, thanks for the handy tip about befriending Mormons, you’re saying. But I’ll never get up the nerve to ask Jake from Legal to go to SoulCycle with me without a drink! Or to sell my division VP on how the Internet of Smells is the next big thing.

Sure you will. Maybe not at this particular party. But you will. Unless, of course, you keep relying on booze to cope with garden-variety human jitters. Then you won’t, because you’ll never get the practice. You’ll keep sending out an altered version of yourself to face the stuff that makes you nervous, and then doing version control the next day. Maybe it’s subtle version control — most of us don’t go around shrieking “Sugar tits!” at people like Mel Gibson when we’re drunk. But you’ll still be managing multiple selves.

And I can tell you this: your drunk self is not funnier, sexier, smarter, or more interesting than your sober one. It’s just less inhibited. And inhibitions, while not the most glamorously bohemian things in the world, are something better: they’re useful. Especially at work, where — catchphrases about “bringing your whole self” aside — you are employed because of specific skills, knowledge, and behaviors that your employer needs to reach its goals. Yes, you’re a person. But you’re a person in a role. Your inhibitions remind you not to lie about a deadline just to get someone off your back, or to speak harshly to the intern who’s just doing her college-senior best, or to pick up a conference table and fling it through the window while primal-screaming in an ancient language of revenge.

Your drunk self is not funnier, sexier, smarter, or more interesting than your sober one.

Here’s the best thing about inhibitions: they’re a good filter for the impulses and questionable ideas that actually are worth paying attention to. Let’s say you’re at the party, a mere three or four drinks in, and thinking that instead of inviting Jake from Legal to SoulCycle, maybe you should cut to the chase and just accidentally get trapped in the stairwell with him. Drunk You won’t know if you really want that, or if it’s just the dopamine talking. But if Sober You thinks it sounds like a plan? I’m not an H.R. professional or a career coach (for which we should all be grateful). All I know is that the harebrained schemes, longings, and impulses that make it through my own filters of inhibition and sobriety often turn out to be, at minimum, genuinely interesting. And I’m able to give them the consideration they deserve, and usually (okay, fine, often) make the right call.

So who knows, maybe you’ll get your movie ending. Maybe two years from now, you and Jake will get married in the very same stairwell where you first kissed at the office Christmas party. Just give me this: start in the way that you want to go on. Start as yourself.