It gets dark just after 4:30; the ground is white with piles of grading. Tis the season–and this season brings with it, for many academics, a big department-sponsored holiday event. It’s my favorite event of the year.
This is post is about how to have fun at that party. (But not too much fun.) This post is directed at graduate students, plus-ones, new faculty, or others whose roles have changed. I’m going to assume some of you are nervous about this event, and I’m going to assume you want to know what it would take to “fit in.” If you want to stand out, that is your right. Hey, I used to wear ripped fishnets to parties. As a shirt. Still, the holiday party is a social genre with general rules that you might not know. Knowledge is power. Use yours deliberately. Bon courage!
My husband and I were sprawled on the couch last night, drinking wine, looking at the tree, and trying to figure out where we’re going to put 73 pairs of wet guest boots next Friday when we figured out I’ve been to somewhere between 15 and 18 of these shindigs, at three different universities. We have hosted at our house three, or maybe four, times. So I have a witnessed and experienced a lot. And I’m going to share.
Where and when and what?
Many departments have holiday parties. These might be at lunchtime, in the department common room, with two platters of shortbreads from the grocery store, and coffee in an urn. Or it might be a catered lunch at the University Club for faculty members only. The grad students might formally or informally put on a house party or pub crawl. There might be a house party at the home of a faculty member, inviting graduate students and faculty members and staff.
Many of your decisions will be based on what kind of event your department hosts, and you will glean most of this information from the invitation. The invitation will tell you where and when and what. It will tell you how to RSVP. It will tell you if you can bring a plus-one. It will tell you if you are expected to bring food, or alcohol.
But if you’re in a new department, the invitation can seem distressingly vague and confusing. The invitation won’t tell you what to wear, or if people will be drinking and how much, and how many people usually go, and if grad students are REALLY welcome, or if it’s any fun.
Tip for grads: use the whisper network. Ask other, more senior grads about the party. Do people dress up? Is it fun? Am I expected to go to this, or am I expected to politely decline. Extra tip: ask several people, and average their responses. And then RSVP by the required date. This is non-negotiable.
Tip for faculty: put as much information in the invitation as possible, so that new department members can make informed choices. If you really want people to come, reach out more than once, and be actually friendly about it. It matters.
Tip for faculty: be inclusive. Flag your event as family friendly, queer friendly, teetotaller friendly, and multicultural. Reach out to invitees who might not feel, perhaps, vigorously hailed by the invitation and assure them they are welcome and work to make them feel so.
Preparing and Arriving
Arrive well prepared and confident by doing your advance research–knowing what kind of event you’re attending will go a long way to helping you decide what to wear and what to bring and how long to stay and how to behave. If you’re shy or nervous, arrange to arrive and leave with a buddy.
A department common room party with drop in hours is the most casual. People will appreciate if you arrive near the beginning, because no one ever wants to be the first one there and so the first half hour can be agonizingly empty. Arrange to arrive with a friend or in a group. Be sure to smile and be friendly to the poor sap who had to organize this and who is standing and grinning nervously in front of 700 cookies with no one eating them. Your collegiality will be gratefully remembered.
A lunch or dinner off campus is more formal: you absolutely MUST RSVP for this in advance, and show up precisely on time. There is money involved. Find out if people tend to dress a little nicer for this event, and match that. It will be easier if you don’t have to bring 40 pounds of grading in two grocery bags that you have to try to stow under the table, but it is sometimes unavoidable. If there is a coat check, use it.
A house party is both formal and informal. They can be the hardest to gauge. These are evening events, that usually have some catering arranged, and often drinking will be permitted. Arrive as close to the start-time as you can manage, and leave by the stated end time. Again, find out from others how people tend to dress, make your own choices accordingly. Please take off your shoes–bring shoes with you to wear in the house, if it’s crucial to your outfit. The “coat check” can be chaotic at house parties. Try not to bring giant or multiple bags of things, and always stuff your hat and mitts and scarf into the sleeve of your coat, because it’s going on a pile of 70 other coats in someone’s guest room and I can guarantee they don’t want to dig through it with you at 11pm because your one green mini glove cannot be found.
What to Bring
Invitations can be very vague. Sometimes, it won’t indicate that you have to pay for your own restaurant meal. Sometimes it will be vague on the question of alcohol. Often it will ask you to bring something. Assuage anxiety and avoid embarrassment by resolving any vague details into concrete information. Ask the party organizer, or the department support staff. They will appreciate your desire to do the right thing and happily let you know what’s up.
Tip: be a good guest and never arrive empty-handed. The most informal common room events require you to explicitly thank the organizer, and perhaps offer a card to the staff members who’ve put their time into putting it on. A lunch requires you to pay in advance by the deadline as specified, or to have sufficient funds in the right form (cheque or cash) to kick into the kitty at the event. A potluck requires you to sign up by the deadline, and to bring what you promised, before the start of the party. A catered house party requires very little of you, but you must bring something, as you would to any party: a bottle of wine, a box of shortbreads, something people can share.
Fun story: a bunch of years ago, we hosted the party and were agog at the party’s end as one very drunk grad student rifled around on the drinks table, before grabbing an unopened bottle of wine from among the many, many empty ones. “Got it!” they slurred, “It didn’t get opened.” And they took it. Don’t do that. You’ve clearly drunk whatever everyone else brought, and that unopened wine is what we’re probably going to drink tomorrow morning at 6am as we begin a full day of cleaning up the house.
How to Behave
This is a work event, finally. A party is a party, of course, except when it’s a work sponsored party, when it’s still a party but you have to remember that you are among peers who will write you reference letters. Awkward.
Do: Be friendly and polite. Try to speak to many different people. Ask them about their holiday plans, or what TV shows they watch, or how their grading is going. This is a great opportunity to get to know grad students you pass in the halls, or to get on speaking terms with faculty members you’ve only seen on the department web page. Aim for light topics, and perhaps a conversation will develop that is more weighty from there, but perhaps people just want to talk about the new Star Wars movie.
Do: Be chill. No one is using the department party as a snare to lure students so that we may harrass them about dissertation chapters or final papers. Please believe me when I say, as a faculty member, that the last thing I want is to talk to you about your revision schedule. I don’t want to think about that stuff on Friday night either. Please do not worry that all your profs are judging you and thinking about your last presentation or why your language requirement is not yet complete. We’re really, really not.
Don’t: Let it all hang out. Perhaps your department persona is a carefully crafted construct, with elbow patches and deference and exquisitely turned phrases. Perhaps once you get home, you shout obscene things at your television while blasting Wagner and nursing grievances against “those idiots in the real world.” I suggest to you that the department party is a space more akin to the department than your apartment. Everyone is less formal at parties, as the boundaries and strictures of the workplace loosen. A little. Not all the way.
True story. Perhaps you only tolerate your committee through gritted teeth. Your committee members give you contradictory advice, and only six months after getting your draft, and you don’t think they are going to help you on the job market because they don’t seem to know anybody. Perhaps drunkenly telling this to everyone at the party is not the wise choice, particularly if your entire committee is within six feet of you, and trying to pretend they don’t hear you.
How to drink
Moderately. If it’s that kind of party. At a restaurant event, see what the hosts and senior people order before you choose what to drink. Model your behaviour on that of the hosts. At a catered event where you are provided with drink tickets, the number of tickets is a clue.
House parties are tougher to navigate. Many of us drink to quell our nerves. And many parties with younger people feature drunken conviviality. Most parties with older people are more characterized by a light buzz. Aim for the latter, at the most, rather than the former. It is a work party, not a rager. Do not pre-party. Do not chug. Do not, dear sweet merciful Celestia, do shots.
Don’t: get blind drunk. I have never been to a department event where alcohol was served where there was not a wildly inappropriately drunk student, and sometimes, faculty member. People remember this. We do not trust the professionalism and good judgement of people who get wasted at work events. Academic life features a lot of these supposed to be fun but not THAT fun events with some drinking but not THAT much drinking and it’s important that you demonstrate to your colleagues that you can handle these situations.
Don’t: quiz other people about what they’re drinking. There are a lot of reasons people don’t drink alcohol, and none of them are your business. Also don’t push alcohol on people who don’t want it.
Tip for hosts: Always provide festive, fun, and appealing non-alcoholic drinks and make non-drinkers feel welcome and supported even at events where alcohol is served. If the even is non-alcoholic, make sure everyone knows.
True story: That extremely drunk grad student who fell off the porch at the one party lo these many years ago, and wouldn’t get into the cab that concerned fellow students called for them. Many people are still talking about that, years and years and years later, whenever this scholar’s name is mentioned. Do not be that scholar.
How to have fun
I used to find these parties really awkward. I didn’t know who to talk to, or how long to stay, or if I should drink, or what to wear. Long years of practice mean I’m a lot more comfortable, and I actually have fun. This is a nice opportunity to engage with other students and faculty as human beings. It’s nice. I hope you can enjoy it, too.