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How to avoid disaster at the office party

Topics and questions to skip when socializing at work

From uncomfortable dead air to full-blown, foot-right-in-mouth gaffes, we’re all two drinks and one unlucky corner spot from living That Awkward Moment at the office party.

Moving from office to social setting isn’t usually seamless, nor is the transition from friendly colleague to actual friend, but it needn’t be a total disaster either. Dodge a landmine or two with the help of Kimberly Law, business etiquette expert and president of Vancouver’s Personal Impact International.

“So, uh, are you new here?”

Dumb question, especially if the reply is: No, been here a whole decade, and we actually just chatted in the copy room this week, remember? Congratulations, you’ve made a new work nemesis. There’s no shame if you suck at remembering faces—many, if not most, of us do—but you can deflate this embarrassing situation with a little word tweak. “If you recognize a face, start with good eye contact and a nice smile, then ask for a reminder about what department they’re in,” suggests Law. Unless they’re even more awkward than you, with any luck you’ll get a “Tom from Accounting” and be in the clear.

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“What are you guys talking about?”

If you’re approaching someone or somebody, a tip to not be that person: “It’s always best to approach someone on their own,” explains Law, “and next best is a group of three or more people.” Two people, unless they smile and invite you over, is a dicier choice for a lone mingler like you. “They could be having a private conversation and that could be embarrassing for everyone.”

[Too-long nervous silence as the tension mounts]

Once you’ve sparked up a conversation, you’ve got one clear goal of finding something in common (not work) and bonding. “If you have any kind of inside knowledge—you know they won an award, you read their memo, or you noticed a photo in their office—lead with that.” As always, double points for anything complimentary and remember everyone loves talking about themselves. (Though if you’ve really got nothing, Law says ‘How’s your day going?’ works almost any time.)

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“Your daughter in the photo is a real knockout!” (It’s his wife.)

A quick warning on that office photograph though: “Do not make any assumptions at all,” says Law. Not about someone’s family, religion, money, political ideologies, none of that. Personal info should be volunteered as your chat unfolds, with no exceptions, and if getting personal is your goal, extend an extracurricular invite (ie. “a bunch of us are going out afterwards, wanna come?”) to see if your new friend is good to get a little friendlier.

“How ‘bout that Harvey Weinstein stuff, am I right?”

Current events are great conversation starters, says Law, who suggests you take a few extra minutes in advance to be up-to-date on the news that day. That said, non-controversial content is king here. If the Olympics are on, go with that, says Law. Sports and fun pop culture, perfect. Sexual harassment in the workplace? No, never. And what about the tried-and-true weather talk? “Unless the weather is exceptional, do not mention the weather,” laughs Law. You can do better!