This is an audio transcript of the Working It podcast episode: ‘Office life — tales from the Christmas party dance floor’

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Jo Hemmings
It’s like a sort of booby trap, really, because if you’re not, you know, dancing, which is a lot of people’s downfalls, you’ve got the booze, you might have a wardrobe malfunction, you might do something a bit silly. You’ve got to expect things like small talk with colleagues that you perhaps wouldn’t really have any conversations with at all. Or if you do that very work-oriented, how much self-disclosure are you gonna give, how far you can get out of your comfort zone and behave in a way that you wouldn’t at work, but where that boundary pretty much stops where you might regret something.

Isabel Berwick
Hello and welcome to Working It with me, Isabel Berwick.

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It’s the festive season and today we’re talking about the workplace Christmas party. Some people dread them and some can’t get enough of the drink and the dancing. Whichever camp you’re in, a lot of money goes into these events and that peculiar December alchemy of alcohol, freedom and a covers band means that strange things can happen, and some of those things can have a bad knock-on effect on careers and relationships. To find out more about Christmas parties and how to deal with them, I talked to Jo Hemmings. She’s a behavioural psychologist who we often see on TV. So I asked Jo, what is the psychology behind having a party at Christmas? Because it seems to me something quite primal, you know, perhaps to do with the midwinter solstice and our desire to escape the darkness.

Jo Hemmings
Many people dread it, because it’s that contradiction in terms, you know, to have a party, let our hair down, go a bit crazy; at the same time, this is with A, your work colleagues — you have a completely different relationship with; and B, that sort of inherent fear that if you actually do really party, you’re gonna regret it the next day because you’ll have recollections of things that are deeply inappropriate in a work setting. You’ve been thrown into a very social setting, so it’s quite a hard construct, but people still have them because I guess it’s expected, especially after Covid, let’s get us all back together for a party. But I did some research on it a few years ago and it turns out that 75 per cent of people fear their work party.

Isabel Berwick
Wow. And do you think people drink too much because they’re nervous?

Jo Hemmings
They might drink too much because it’s free or because they’re nervous. And of course, if you don’t drink, then you probably feel you’re gonna be a bit miserable or other people perceive you as such. And if you do, it’s quite hard to sort of limit the point. You know, it’s difficult in a mindset to feel safe or feel comfortable at a work Christmas party. So when alcohol comes into play, yeah, I think it actually may make things worse for some people.

Isabel Berwick
So Jo, have you got any words for people who’ve perhaps behaved badly at a party, who were embarrassed? What would you advise they do to minimise the damage?

Jo Hemmings
I think to own it and say, I’m so sorry, I’m such a lightweight, couple of gin and tonics and I’m all over the place. Own it, apologise and move on. So don’t dwell on it. Don’t let people overthink it. Don’t you overthink it too much, either.

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Isabel Berwick
I’m joined on Working It for the first time by my FT colleague Jo Ellison, editor of HTSI. And Jo also writes a column that I love about culture and she’s across all the best trends. So I’m gonna put this to you, Jo: should we ditch the party as outdated and simply offer cash? Because I read a survey this week that suggested 94 per cent of workers would prefer their employer to give them cash instead of the money they spend on the Christmas party. In a cost of living crisis, I think that’s understandable, but I don’t know . . . Is it a bit Grinchy?

Jo Ellison
It feels quite Grinchy and it’s a bit self-interested, isn’t it? I do think we all bang on and on about this sort of sense of community and the idea that we are part of a broader organism than is just ourselves. I think it’s a shame to think that we don’t want to spend any time outside of office hours with each other unless we’re being literally paid for it. I mean, the idea that there is a kind of financial redistribution there is just a bit sad. I kind of like the idea that we might want to go and meet some people or have a few friends in another department that you want to share a drink with.

Isabel Berwick
So I did scour my network for the most debauched and sweetest party stories. So these are my two favourites. But I can say with confidence that a lot of people seem to spend the night in the office bathroom or under their desk, so that seems quite common. So imagine being this person the next day, Jo. This is someone who works at the FT, but they’re careful to stress: “when I was at a previous employer, they had a Christmas ball and I saw an individual urinating against the wall of the main floor and dance floor. The alcohol was extremely free-flowing, and it was quite shocking to see.” I guess this would qualify as embarrassing. Yes, somewhat.

Jo Ellison
I think that might have happened at an office party that I was actually. I think free-flowing urination is not uncommon. I’ve also seen a fist-fight.

Isabel Berwick
This is getting better and better. And now this is a very sweet one. My brother-in-law worked at a large consultancy in London, and every Christmas they organised a gathering for hundreds of staff. At one party, he struck up a conversation with a woman from another department. They spent the whole time chatting in the corner like old friends, despite only having just met. Both were in relationships and there was no romance. The next year he returned to the Christmas party, hoping to perhaps see her again because his relationship had ended during the year and he was keen to continue that conversation. Towards the end of the night, he spied her by the bar. She too had ended her relationship since the previous Christmas and they picked up where they left off. This year we’ll be celebrating their daughter’s first birthday.

Jo Ellison
Aww.

Isabel Berwick
See, I think that story in itself is enough to justify Christmas parties.

Jo Ellison
Well Isabel, I think I can top that because I, too, met my husband at an office party.

Isabel Berwick
Jo!

Jo Ellison
Yeah, it’s where we got together. There’d been a lot of light flirting. I was working at theatre, I was on the box office, he was visiting. It was a big, big, big party at this theatre that happens every year. And yeah, after a little bit of, like, playful flirting, we’d sbogged at that party and that’s where we got together.

Isabel Berwick
And the rest . . .?

Jo Ellison
Yeah, we’re like 27 years strong or something ridiculous like that now. We’ve been together forever. (laughter)

Isabel Berwick
Jo, that is a wonderful story!

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So I also spoke to Timothy Dowling, who’s one of the screenwriters on the film The Office Christmas Party, which came out in 2016 and stars Jennifer Aniston, Jason Bateman, Olivia Munn and TJ Miller. The film is about a manager throwing an epic Christmas party in order to land a big client and save the day, but the party gets way out of hand. So I asked him what inspired the film.

Timothy Dowling
Something the directors and I talked about was that in the corporate environment, the office Christmas party is the one night of the year that’s kind of the great equaliser, in the sense that it’s a party on equal footing and then you add alcohol into the mix, and things happen. And you have people that normally would never interact interacting with each other. And we just thought it was a great environment to create a fun comedy. The funny thing about it is that a lot of us that worked on the movie, we work in Hollywood, we’re writers. You know, when I write scripts, I’m writing on my own and you know, you’re working for corporations, but you’re not a big corporate environment. And so we all joked that none of us had actually really been to an office Christmas party. That was the big secret, like working on this. And so when I was working on the movie, I was trying to get myself invited to various office Christmas parties. And so the various people involved in the movie, I don’t think wanted me there because I don’t think they wanted me taking stuff that happened from their office Christmas party and putting it into the movie. But the head of DreamWorks at the time, Stacey Snider, did invite me to the DreamWorks office Christmas party, but it turned out to be a lunch, which was a joke that we made in the movie that the Christmas party for this company had gotten out of hand and so they relegated it to a launch for a couple of years, and this is the first year that it was coming back. And so I went to the lunch, which is not a type of raucous office Christmas party that, you know, you think it would be. But I did get Stacey Snider, the CEO of DreamWorks, to do shots with me at this lunch. She knew I was there working on this movie. I’m like, we’ve gotta drink something. So that was my one office Christmas party experience.

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Jo Ellison
That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. A lunch with a couple of shots. (laughter) That ain’t no office party, I’m afraid.

Isabel Berwick
I love that the makers of this film were terrified about their party getting into their own film.

Jo Ellison
Yeah, that’s true. I mean, that is the thing. It’s a hermetically sealed environment, isn’t it, the office party? Like what happens there stays there and all of the scandals and intrigues and bad behaviours all kind of parked in that office party box that people only open when they’re trying to humiliate people at sort of conference meetings in the years after. But . ..You don’t want outsiders to see that.

Isabel Berwick
I mean, to elevate this conversation for a minute, it’s like the modern equivalent to Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden, isn’t it?

Jo Ellison
Oh, isn’t it just (laughter) Isabel? Absolutely, it’s just what I was thinking.

Isabel Berwick
But also, I feel relief for myself that when I was being debauched at Christmas parties, there was no such thing as a smartphone.

Jo Ellison
I mean, you don’t really want your colleagues filming you doing the karaoke at 2 o’clock in the morning. The smartphone has completely changed the way that people self-observe their own behaviour or check their own behaviour, as has indeed the law changed. Those ways in which one might have behaved 20 years ago that are very much deemed inappropriate these days — or illegal.

Isabel Berwick
Funny you should say that, because here’s Tim on that strange madness that has historically afflicted people at parties.

Timothy Dowling
I’ve definitely been to parties over the years where people drink a lot, and then the next day you get a text or an email with an apology for actions that they heard happened and things that they’re apologising for. And I think that, from what I hear, is very common at office Christmas parties. And it’s something else we talked about in the movie is that being single at the office Christmas party, a lot of people would say it’s like, OK, if you’re single around the holidays, I think people are more apt to hook up and maybe do things that they wouldn’t normally do because it’s the holidays and there’s alcohol and they’re a little lonely. It’s kind of like being in a wedding and being at the single table. That’s something that we also try to explore a little bit in the movie. I do wonder nowadays, after the #MeToo movement, people are so scared of having them now because of stuff that’s happened and it’s like, OK, maybe we don’t need to mix alcohol and the holidays and people being depressed and getting together and stuff happening. I hope the office Christmas party doesn’t become extinct because I do think it’s a fun thing that people do enjoy.

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Isabel Berwick
I don’t want to see the party go extinct. Do you, Jo?

Jo Ellison
There seems to be sort of like preface by it. Everyone’s depressed. Single is just so miserable. I mean, they can be fun. You see your friends, you hang out with each other. You’re like, put the world to rights, which you haven’t maybe had the opportunity to do ‘cause you’ve been working so hard. You have a bit of a dance and then maybe you get a snog with someone. Obviously, now with Tinder and Grindr and other apps you can find people to hook up with at Christmas time and a lot easier than it might have done. But I still think there’s nothing wrong with a bit of light office flirting and scandal. Everyone wants a bit of that, surely.

Isabel Berwick
I think that’s timeless. Although I have had several emails from HR specialists saying they’re expecting an avalanche of HR complaints after this season because people are so pent up. We’ve missed two years’ parties that they’re expecting quite a lot of issues.

Jo Ellison
Oh, good Lord, that’s sounds terrifying. Come armed with a big stick then. (laughter)

Isabel Berwick
So I was trying to dredge my mind for my favourite personal anecdotes and it didn’t happen to me, but it happened to a man I was in a taxi with. So good I’m going to tell it.

Jo Ellison
OK.

Isabel Berwick
Because he said he’d been at a party sort of the previous week, I think, and he had got so drunk that he and a friend had broken into London Zoo and stolen a penguin and put it in his sports holdall. He’d gone back to his flat, put the penguin in the bath with some fish fingers, and had woken up in the morning to a very disgruntled penguin.

Jo Ellison
Oh, that’s funny.

Isabel Berwick
And I know it’s true because I read it in the papers sometime after. How about you?

Jo Ellison
I don’t know whether I should even say this, but I worked the first summer opening of Buckingham Palace when I left school, so I was really young and I was doing crowd control, like monitoring people queueing to go in to see the palace. And at the end of the season, there was this big kind of hurrah where we all got very drunk and I went and sat on the throne. (laughter) There were no smartphones, so there’s no evidence of this, although I do wonder whether there were security cameras. I imagine there probably were. That’s about the naughtiest thing I ever did at a party.

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Isabel Berwick
This has been a really fun discussion, but I think we have to bear in mind there are people like the man who won his court case in France recently, where he won the right to not be fun at work. You know, people should not be forced to have organised fun. The office party does count as organised fun and you shouldn’t be forced to go. But I spent many years not going to the FT Christmas party for various reasons. But when I did start to go, I loved it because it does make you feel more engaged and connected. And if you can enjoy an evening with your colleagues, as Jo was saying, you know, why is that a bad thing? We’ve worked very hard all year. So I say, good for the Christmas party, good for the people who don’t want to go. But long may it reign, and just have a soft drink between every glass of wine.

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Thanks to Jo Ellison, Jo Hemmings and Timothy Dowling for this episode. If you’re enjoying the podcast, we’d really appreciate it if you left us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. And please do get in touch with us. We want to hear from you, and we’re at workingit@ft.com or with me @isabelberwick on Twitter. If you’re an FT subscriber, please sign up for our Working It newsletter. We’ve got behind-the-scenes extras from the podcast and exclusive stories you won’t see anywhere else. Sign up at FT.com/newsletters. Working It is produced by Novel for the Financial Times. Thanks to the producer Flo de Schlichting, executive producer Jo Wheeler, production assistance from Amalie Sortland and mix from Chris O’Shaughnessy. From the FT, we have editorial direction from Manuela Saragosa. Thanks for listening.

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