December 23, 2014 Leave a comment
Woefully underdressed at an office party; situation disarmed by potty humor
The other day after work, my friend invited me to his employer’s holiday party. He works in downtown Columbus as a graphic designer. “Massive amount of free food and booze at my office party,” he texted. “Open to the public now til whenever tonight.” I told him I’d try to take advantage. “Come on! Obnoxious amount of booze and food!”
The company he works for does social media campaigns and graphic design, so I should have been more aware that networking- and client-oriented businesses demand an elevated level of social grace. Thus the note “Dress to impress haha” included in his texts, which was acknowledged but not fully internalized. I didn’t really think about it because I had been running errands since I got off work, and going to the party was something fun to do at the end of my jaunt around town.
As I walked from my car to the party I realized I didn’t actually know whose party I was attending. I asked a couple in the elevator the name of the company. They laughed. I laughed too, like I had made a joke. The elevator opened into a hallway. There were a few other businesses on the floor and a balcony overlooking the front entrance. The firm’s doors opened to a dimly lit office with large windows overlooking a fashionable street in Columbus. Coats were piled on low-sitting furniture in the waiting area, which led to the office proper. The office was very pleasant to look at in the way corporate offices can be, with exposed brick on the walls and the normal mail-order, Communist bloc office furniture traded for sleek Scandinavian desks. About sixty people were milling about, talking, laughing, carrying on as you do at an office party. The only difference was that everyone looked like they had just walked out of the ads in Vogue. I was wearing jeans and hiking boots and a grey sweatshirt. The mental facepalm was audible.
A sense of showing up underdressed to prom came to mind, even though I was never impressed by the minor pomp of those proceedings. It was like a dream where you’re suddenly self-conscious you’re a nudist – you’re embarrassed by something you ordinarily wouldn’t care about. This scene was all new to me, which I appreciated, but I instinctively felt like I didn’t fit in, and that’s a hard feeling to shake no matter how arbitrary you deem the etiquette.
The guests were wearing sharp tailored suits, fancy watches, perfect hairdos, legit sequined dresses… I mean, I was wearing a baseball cap. The lessons I ignored as a kid came back to haunt me. All my life it was instilled that you take your hat off in a restaurant. I am aware of that social dictum at least, which is why it was painfully obvious the same applied ten times over at a party like this. Nobody else was wearing a hat except the one guy with a taxi-driver cap, but that was acceptable because it matched other things he was wearing.
I walked up to the couple from the elevator and mentioned my embarrassment. The woman was eight months pregnant and said I shouldn’t worry because, “Look at me – I’m a balloon!” I wasn’t sure being pregnant and being underdressed were the same thing, but it was a nice gesture.
I did a couple of laps around the party and took it all in. Eventually I fell in with my friend and a group of his coworkers. We were standing around laughing, shooting the breeze, the conversation getting goofier as it went on. It was relaxing to be standing around talking. “They are just regular people in fancy clothes,” the elevator guy said. Very true. In fact, the pressure was defused by discussing a regular side of professional life – that even this besequined crowd has to use the toilet. They are beset by the same bathroom problems as the rest of us, and sometimes they cause them too:
Right around the corner from their office are the floor’s bathrooms. They have to share it with everyone else. The bathrooms are at the end of a little hallway, and the hallway leads to the bathrooms and nothing else. Basically, if you walk down this hallway, everyone knows exactly where you’re going. They know what you’re up to, and probably can’t help but note how long you’re doing it.
If getting to the bathroom embarrasses you, putting up with what goes on inside will likely bother you too. According to a coworker, one of the worst challenges the floor has to face is a father-son-uncle power trio who work in an adjoining office. We were told the family routinely uses the bathroom one after the other. You can imagine how intense three large men in sequence might be. The result is so bad that “you’ll walk in and there’ll be mist!”
More tales of troublesome toilets followed: one person told us how he was in there once and the water wouldn’t stop filling the bowl, and he stared at his own hand is disbelief as it illustrated the water’s steady climb. Another person related wrapping his hand in toilet paper and punching down the offending clog. (The tactic reportedly worked.) Forget picturing your audience naked, picture them overflowing toilets and pacing around frantically as they try to figure out what to do.
This enlightening discussion coupled with the familiar cast of characters at an office party – a drunk, ruddy pair of party gals and a weirdish guy talking in way more detail than necessary about a mundane topic to the disinterested woman he is trying to impress – made it seem like we had won the battle of temporary in-over-your-headedness.
The final social duty I had to keep in mind was an awareness of the amount of food it was acceptable to eat. A friend of my parents’ was said to be a notorious buffet-hoverer and a sample-dominator. I overheard this quirk being discussed when I was a kid but I couldn’t understand the problem – food was set out to be eaten, so why not eat it? And I don’t really understand this twisted logic now either, but I do understand some restraint is expected in most social gatherings. Hovering around a table of hors d’oeuvres, your hands a blur as you grab prosciutto then pineapple then dates then cheese then crumpets can seem excessive in the right company. This was certainly that company. And my friend does work there, so his reputation had to be considered too. The problem was, of course, that quality increases in proportion to the classiness: this party seemed about a 6.5/7 on the holiday party scale, and thus the food was equally as tempting. A compromise was reached a little while later after the party began dying down. People were trickling out but the sandwich pile was still going strong. Nobody was paying us much attention, so another guy and I calmly grabbed sandwiches for the road. We didn’t embarrass anyone or ourselves, and we did get to eat some more. A harmless success! Social gatherings are fun when you know how to navigate them, and this party was a pretty enlightening lesson in how to make the most out of unfamiliar situations.