After a few years when companies avoided throwing holiday parties, corporate America is kicking back with the eggnog again. Executive search firm Battalia Winston’s annual survey found that 96% of companies are going to have holiday parties this year — a 16-year high.
So, there’s a good chance you’ll be part of the festivities in the next month. Sure, you know not to be the one with the lampshade on your head, but are you ready? TIME asked some experts in human resources how to avoid the smaller, more common gaffes and awkward moments you’re more likely to face at your office holiday party.
What if I space out on someone’s name?
This is one of the most common faux pas people make at these events, says Dale Winston, chairwoman and CEO of Battalia Winston. Ideally, Winston says you should brush up on who’s going beforehand. “What you should do is get a list in advance of who will be attending and do a little homework,” she says, to avoid that tongue-tied moment in the first place. If it happens anyway, pick the lesser of two evils. “If you don’t remember the name, don’t introduce the person,” Winston says. “Although it’s rude not to introduce the person you’re talking to, it’s ruder not to remember the name.”
How much talking shop is appropriate?
“Talking shop is safe to talk when asked by a manager, but keep it short and to the point,” says Amy Letke, founder and CEO of consulting company Integrity HR. “Many a faux pas has been made at holiday parties talking too much shop,” she warns. Letke says a party should be a good opportunity to communicate with your boss in a lower-key setting and get to know your colleagues on a more personal level.
So, what am I supposed to talk about?
The upcoming holiday is a safe bet, the experts say. “[Ask] what they’re doing for the holiday,” Winston says. “Small talk about them” is generally safe, she says. “People love to talk about themselves.”
Gratitude is another fail-safe topic, says Ben Peterson, co-founder and CEO of software company BambooHR. “Say ‘thank you’ for any genuine reason you can think of. Thank-yous and common courtesy are meaningful,” he says. Better yet, they give you something to say.
What if the conversation turns to politics or religion?
The best way to avoid getting sucked into a debate on any controversial topic is to steer clear of the conversation entirely. If it comes up, just try changing the subject. “Say something like, ‘Yeah, politics are complicated sometimes,’” says Peterson. Then change the subject — stat. “Ask them where their favorite vacation spot is, and why,” he says.
How do I get out of a conversation?
If a conversation has run its course, scan the room, but do it subtly — you don’t want to give the impression that the person you’re chatting with is boring you. “There is usually somebody you need to greet or meet,” Peterson points out. No one from your department nearby? Maybe there’s a new worker you can introduce yourself to, or a spouse you can tell how much you enjoy working with their husband or wife. Excuse yourself and say there’s someone you really need to catch who just walked by, and that you enjoyed chatting with them.
Can I leave early (or skip the party entirely)?
Maybe and no, respectively. “Never be the first person to leave,” Winston says. Make sure you’ve made the way around the room and mingled first. “You don’t want to be the wallflower. Part of being successful in an organization is dependent upon building relationships — sideways, upwards and downwards.” The holiday party not only lets you do that, it demonstrates to higher-ups in attendance that you can do so successfully.
If you have a good reason for leaving early, address it at the outset. If you have another commitment or have to get the babysitter home, when you get there, give your boss a heads-up about your intended departure time, Letke says. “Be thoughtful to the host, thank them for their courtesy, and move along,” she says.