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How to Save Face in 8 of the Season's Most Awkward Situations

What to do if you overdo it at the company party, double book yourself at two parties in one night, or show up empty-handed.
How to Save Face in 8 of the Season's Most Awkward Situations

The holidays are all about socializing as much as possible with your friends, family, colleagues, and your significant other. To help you prevent making mistakes (or know what to do if you’re in the midst of a disaster), we talked to Susan RoAne, keynote speaker and best-selling author of How To Work a Room: Silver Anniversary Edition. Here, she shares tips on common situations you may come across this season—like getting rid of gabber at a holiday party, how to recover if you were “that guy” at the company party last night, what to do if someone bought you a gift and you didn’t get them one, and more.

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If you occasionally feel “shy” in social gatherings, you’re not alone—researchers say near 50% of Americans identify as being shy. Before you attend any party, read the paper and brush up on what’s going on in your town, the country, and the world. Then, practice how you’re going to introduce yourself. “Tailor your introduction to every event to give others context of who you are, why you’re there, and what they could talk to you about,” says RoAnne. If it’s a business event, say the benefit of what you do. (If you’re a realtor say, “I put roofs over people's heads.”) This gives the other person the opportunity to ask you the first question, and then they’ll feel like they started the conversation.

If someone asks you a question, give a short answer, then stop talking about yourself and say, “What about you?” RoAne advises against asking, “What do you do for a living?” since people don’t always enjoy their jobs or want to talk about them. When you say “What about you?” it allows them to talk about what they’re interested in, which could be that they’re training for a triathlon or volunteering with a local sports team. Then, when someone talks about himself or herself, listen, advises RoAne. Don’t start daydreaming or thinking about what you’re doing for tomorrow’s workout. Other fallback questions include “Where are you originally from?” or “Where did you go to school?” Hopefully the questions lead into stories, laughter, and good conversation from there.

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You want to schmooze and socialize at a company event but the new colleague you just met latched himself to your side and won’t let you work the room on your own. To exit the conversation, try one of RoAne’s How to Work a Room tactics. Try interrupting yourself while talking. In the middle of a sentence, put your hand out—because that handshake also signals that the conversation is over—and say, “It was great talking to you about [whatever you were conversing about].” This shows you were listening to them. If you want their card, say, “Do you have a card?” or “May I offer you one of mine?” Give people an easy way of getting in touch with you afterward if you’re interested in connecting after the event. Then, walk away from that person to another group or a person standing alone by walking laterally or straight ahead. Never turn your back on the person, advises RoAne. Another exit strategy is to smile and say, “I’m so enjoying talking to you that I could completely monopolize your time, but I know that you want to meet other people, and that they’ll want to meet you.” While that line might not work for everyone, it’s a great way to let the other person know you’re there for mingling and not for the monopolizing. 

If you’re stuck in a group where someone is going on and on with what seems like a never-ending story and you’re wondering when you’re going to get your time to talk, jump in as soon as that person takes a breath, suggests RoAne. Jump in with a line that begins like, “Oh, that reminds me of…” or, “Glad you said that, because that reminds me of…” and then come in with a story. If this is a business party, you may want to switch it to something that has something to do with your career, clients, and your business, like “That reminds me of when I was interviewing this person for a job and…” Or if you’re talking to someone, the conversation is going nowhere, and you can’t get away fast enough, look at them and say, “I hope you enjoy the rest of the party.” No need to say, “It was great talking to you,” if it wasn’t, says RoAne. It’s important not to be rude because you don’t know who that person is, what they do, who they work with, who they’re related to, and you might come across them again in business or your personal life in the near future.

Showing up in skinny jeans and a button down at a black tie affair can be avoided with one simple tactic: Read the invitation. The invite will tell you whether it’s formal, business casual, a costume party, an ugly sweater party, and so on.

And if you tried to prevent the problem but still find yourself underdressed for the party or dinner, make light of the situation by saying something like, “That’ll teach me to read an invite without my glasses on.”

Always keep a “just-in-case” jacket and tie in your car or office, suggests RoAne.

If you’re overdressed for the party, just ditch the tie and jacket and open your shirt collar if the event is very casual. “You’re always better off being a little overdressed than underdressed,” says RoAne.

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If you woke up Friday morning after the company party and can’t remember what happened, you might be panicking about whether you said or did anything that could put your career in jeopardy. First, check your phone for any embarrassing texts, calls, or photos. If there’s no collateral damage on your cell, text your best buddy at work and ask what happened and if he or she noticed you saying or doing anything questionable last night. Hopefully, your work buddy looked out for you and you were better behaved than you feared. And if you did get a little out of hand, find out what you said, did, and whom you might have to apologize to as soon as possible.

“The world is way too small to misbehave—if you’re at a holiday party sponsored by someone in your business life, remember that it’s business,” says RoAne. You may think that because there’s an open bar and festive decorations that it’s a party. “It’s a party, but it is a business party, so be mindful of your career, your goals, the etiquette, and what you want to be remembered for,” she says.

If you see one of your friends getting a little too drunk or acting inappropriately at an event, try to steer them away from the group for a few minutes and check in to make sure they’re okay. Even better, if you’re going to a work party with an open bar, talk to your friend ahead of time and suggest keeping an eye out for each other or putting a limit on the number of drinks you’ll have.

Don’t go to the party on an empty stomach, either. You’ll probably be presented with a few drinks before the food is served so having a snack about an hour before the party starts can help prevent you from getting too drunk in the first place.

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Whether you received a late invite or completely blanked on the etiquette of bringing something, don’t fret or call attention to it. “If you walk in without a host gift, don’t mention that you didn’t bring one,” says RoAne. After the event, make a donation in their name to a local food bank, including the donation card in the thank you note. “This is something you can do any time of year that will make your host feel so much better than the tchotchke you would have brought,” says RoAne.

Whenever you go to a party, make sure you don’t bring the host a gift they have to do work for and attend to, like having to assemble food or finding a vase for flowers, suggests RoAne. Bring something for the host for later, like a box of chocolates they can enjoy themselves or choose to share with the guests.

Even though it may be considered an old-fashioned move, sending a “thank you” note in the mail after you’ve been invited to a party will be memorable, says RoAne. But if that doesn’t work for you, at least send a thank you email within two days of the party.

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We’re all busy this time of year and there are probably going to be a few dates where you’ve got more than one invite. Sometimes, you can go to two parties in one night if they’re not far away and you time them correctly. If one party is a sit-down dinner, it’s rude to leave in the middle of it, so you might want to attend that party first and stop by your other friend’s gathering for a nightcap. If you’re party hopping, stay at least an hour, and make sure you thank the host before you leave, telling them that while you had other commitments, you didn’t want to miss seeing them and being a part of their holiday celebration.

If you know you won’t be able to attend one of the parties, give the host a head’s up as soon as possible so they don’t spend money on food and drinks for you. Never be a no-show, advises RoAne. Call the host and apologize, saying you’d like to get together for dinner or drinks after the New Year. Then meet up with them in January and pick up the tab or host them.

While this is a bit of an “Oh sh*t” situation, the good news is that hopefully you’re reading this before you hang out with your significant (or not that significant) other over the holidays. We’re trying to help you, man.

While it’s better to bring up the “Are we exchanging gifts?” topic um, now, and even if she says you’re not, take it from a woman—it’s better to have a few things on hand “just in case.” Maybe your girlfriend pointed out earrings or a scarf she liked in a store or told you about her favorite author, movie director, or chocolates she loves. It wouldn’t hurt you to have at least one gift on hand in case she presents you with something (just keep the receipt).

By the way, if you’re in a long-term relationship and she was expecting an engagement ring, there is no way a scarf is going to cut it, says RoAne. But hopefully you’re in a relationship where you and your lady are on the same page when it comes to exchanging gifts and expectations. Sometimes one person in the relationship will overbuy and get their partner an expensive gift when the other person has only bought a little acknowledgment gift. If you’ve purchased a small gift and she went over the top, simply say thank you, while acknowledging her generosity and thoughtfulness.

If you don’t want to exchange gifts, say something along the lines of, “The holidays are coming up, and there’s just so much going on and so many people to shop for, why don’t we just have a special dinner or do something together as our gift to each other,” suggests RoAne.

And if you read this and you still wind up in the situation where the person you’re dating bought you a gift and you didn’t buy them one, tell them that you planned on finding out something she wanted to do and make arrangements for that, suggests RoAne. Come up with a few ideas for things she might want to do, like check out a new art exhibit, see her favorite band, or spend the day at a local winery.

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