Working Smarter

April 6, 2014 2:36 pm

How to be a dutiful spouse at functions

The days when a man’s chances of promotion could be affected by his wife’s ability to laugh prettily at his boss’s terrible jokes at company functions are, thankfully, long gone. Now, dual-career partners are likely to take it in turns to be the “plus one” at work events. So, if you are used to leading, how do you perform the supporting role?

Start by preparing. Workplace behaviour expert Judi James suggests you discuss suitable small-talk topics beforehand and arm yourself with a few lines. You should be familiar with your partner’s work, but she cautions that “you don’t want to look as if you discuss trade secrets at home”. Note too that all workplaces have a dress code. “You want to blend in visibly as well as verbally,” says Ms James.

Once you are at the event, remember it is not about you. Try to play a kind of confident second fiddle. “This is one area where celebrities and politicians are very good role models,” says Ms James. “If you look at couples like the Clintons or Brad and Angelina, the supporting partner isn’t submissive, but you always know whose event it is.”

Ensure that you are introduced to people properly, but resist the urge to take over. You should be a good listener and charming, but not an entertainer.

If you are struggling, go back to conversational basics, says Sharon Meers, co-author of Getting to 50/50: How Working Couples Can Have It All by Sharing It All. “Find the human story and look for the subtext. Everyone has something interesting in their background. It’s not that different to being at a dinner party.”

Remember too that there are all sorts of nuances and a web of relationships you may not be aware of. Ms Meers says it can help to approach the events like an anthropologist. “Learn the social dynamics – what does power look like and how does the business really work? What can you learn and how can it make you more helpful?”

As well as not drinking too much or flirting, there are some less obvious missteps to avoid. Do not radically change the topic of conversation as you mark yourself out as an outsider; and avoid talking too freely about your home life as this may clash with the domestic picture your spouse has painted. Lastly, it is a good idea to have an agreed safe word if you stray into risky areas of conversation: “A word is much better than a look as others are less likely to pick up on it,” says Ms James.

Attending your spouse’s work events can have upsides for you, of course. Ms Meers notes that the kind of “diplomatic corps” skillset that these events can help develop are useful. It is also beneficial to be taken out of your comfort zone and meet people from worlds different from your own.

Overall, remember that being a supportive spouse in public is still surprisingly powerful, says Ms James. “It is often the partner who sells the couple.”

workingsmarter@ft.com

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