A co-worker recently told me that he wasn’t sure if I was an introvert or an extrovert. I replied that I was still trying to figure it out.
We’re all social chameleons. The way we act around our colleagues is very different from the way we act around our friends. Due to prescribed expectations, we don’t generally have the opportunity to get to know our co-workers until we’re outside the restrictive office environment.
Enter: The office Christmas party.
At a recent holiday shindig for a company I freelance for, a buzzed colleague and I bonded over our mutual infatuation for music from the 1960s. I met the sparkling, chatty fiancée of a quiet co-worker. And I gaped in awe as a respectable higher-up dropped to his knees during Boney M’s Rasputin and proceeded to entertain us with some scarily proficient Russian dance moves.
What. In. The. Heck?
Who are these people that we spend so many of our waking hours in the presence of? We know their names, their positions and what they eat for lunch, but their personal lives, preferences and real personalities are, for the most part, a mystery. That is until it’s time to party!
“At parties, some people believe that the normal rules that govern the identities they have negotiated with one another are relaxed,” explains social psychology Prof. William B. Swann.
“The boss who is ordinarily chilly with her subordinates may feel that she can warm up, or co-workers who are normally competitive with one another may be persuaded to ignore this and try to relax and enjoy one another. Alcohol can exaggerate these tendencies by lowering social inhibition and making people more open to experimenting with identities that they would not dream of assuming while sober.”
But mistletoe and tumblers of extra-special eggnog among co-workers is potentially problematic.
“The downside of suspending the identity negotiation process for parties is that it can be difficult to revert back to the original identity,” says Swann. “This will be particularly true if the party atmosphere encourages us to reveal something that could poison a relationship (e.g., hostility or inappropriate attraction).”
True, you may never look at Janice from accounts receivable in the same way ever again (cheap drunk, opera hobbyist), but anything that reveals the humanity of those around us probably isn’t such a bad thing.