Belfast Telegraph

'Tis the season to be dreading the Office Party

By Gail Walker

Does it still exist? Has austerity perhaps killed it off? Did "political correctness", fear of sexual harassment (or charges of sexual harassment) or drink-driving laws hole the institution below the waterline? Or was it a combination of zero contract part-time hours and high staff turnover that finally did for that staple of 1970s sitcoms and marital crisis?

I mean, of course, that dreadful occasion when you spend an evening with friends and colleagues with all the dials wrenched desperately up to 11 in a frantic but futile effort to prove that you are having "a good time" and the stairway to an even better time is carpeted with red wine, louder music and crazier antics.

The Office Christmas Party - that bacchanalia when the social niceties are set aside, the protocols abandoned and our hair let down. But the point is, nobody lets their hair down. Not really. No, such is the pressure to be "fun", to be "zany" and "a laugh" that we spend, as it were, the days before trying on hair extensions. And that's just the blokes.

In other words, the Christmas party isn't a place where people slip off the starched white collars of office rank and "be themselves".

Apart from the existential horror about possibly not having selves to be, the Office Party is an occasion when, in reality, we have to be as far away from our real selves as possible. No wonder, considering the ordeal, it always ends up with desperate casualties as normal, decent people seek Dutch courage in another glass - or six - of punch.

People who are normally kind, witty and great company turn into over-assertive, self-proclaimed red coats of mirth, forcing reluctant colleagues to do the disco rowboat to Oops Upside Your Head by The Gap Band.

Dance! Drink! Be Fun! Make Me Laugh!

And all with the implicit criticism: why aren't you having more fun?

But that's just the point. For many the party isn't fun. Now don't get me wrong, Christmas is a great time for socialising. There is nothing more magical than when a drink after work catches fire and people feel free to come and go, join in this conversation or that one. At times like this, to use a cliché, the craic is mighty.

But the point is occasions like that are organic, natural and spontaneous. We bring not a grotesque version of ourselves to the party, but - for better or for worse - our true selves. And if others have to leave to go home to the wife/husband/partner/the kids, all of the above, or just to watch a programme on church architecture on BBC4, no problem. Night, night - safe home.

No pressure. Ditto the impromptu lunches with friends or even - whisper it quietly - when the worker bees knock off Christmas Eve and huddle around in little knots of friendship having an illicit glass of Tesco's finest.

These are the rituals of true camaraderie, of friendship, of acquaintance. Not some bogus festival of misrule where the normal social civilities are put into the stationery cupboard.

But not the Office Party, where there is always a three-line whip demanding enforced mirthless jollity. Nope, the OP is a ritual to be dreaded - and not just by timid, reserved souls. It is an endurance test which feels a cross between a Carry On film and a Maoist Re-Educational Camp.

Anyway, it's all history now. Isn't it? The public sector abandoned such jollies paid for by the taxpayer two decades ago. The working classes in the now-defunct factories never had them in the first place, forsaking bottles of stout to be by the side of the missus and kids to a chorus of "Come whoam to thy childer an' me".

If the CBI is to be believed, the modest private sector can hardly afford another lump of coal for the office grate and Bob and Roberta Cratchit has to be back at his or her desktop by 7am on Boxing Day. Or something like that.

Which leaves the Office Party field clear for banks, PR companies, supermarket employees and nurses. Throw in the multiple PSNI station bashes and, some might say, that's the perfect party!

Maybe, as the toll of dead and injured on the roads continues to rise through the holiday periods, calling time on the spree isn't such a bad idea, really.

The only one drinking and driving at Christmas should be Santa.

Follow me on Twitter @GWalker9

Belfast Telegraph


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