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Christmas party: Should you bring your partner?

  • 10 December 2010
  • From the section Magazine
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An office party

As the Christmas party season gets under way, many people will be wrestling with the dilemma of inviting their partner. Is that a good idea?

Often viewed with some trepidation, they're a tinder-box of office politics, awkward small talk and embarrassing dancing, all washed down with plenty of alcohol.

Work Christmas parties can be fun but they're also a social minefield, even at the best of times, so throw in a "plus one" and they're potentially explosive.

Despite the difficult economic climate, nearly two-thirds of UK companies are throwing a party this year, according to the annual Christmas Party survey from the Chartered Management Institute.

Many of those will be restricted to employees only, especially in these financially-straitened times. But for some there is the annual dilemma of whether to take your spouse or partner.

Research carried out some years ago suggested that more than half of people given the choice prefer to leave their partner at home, saying they would feel too inhibited if they came.

As well as the prospect of babysitting the person who knows no-one and can't follow all the shop talk, there is the added risk of it all going wrong. Some people still bear the "plus one" scars of Christmases past.

"I went to my company's Christmas party with my girlfriend," recalls one office worker, regretfully. "She disappeared, off to the toilets, and people kept coming back saying 'Oh my God, there's someone in the toilets, they're locked in, I think they're being sick.

"Then it actually dawned on me that it was my girlfriend in there and the whole office was talking about it."

Another woman remembers with embarrassment her boyfriend ordering multiple drinks at a time, in front of her boss, because it was a free bar.

Such behaviour can't help but reflect badly on the person responsible for taking them, says business etiquette expert Judi James.

"Bringing a partner can undo all the good you've done through the year with your reputation," she says.

"Rather like your mum coming to the school to pick you up, there's something about partners - they think they can say anything they like. They don't understand status, pecking orders or office politics.

"They have no idea of boundaries and never get it. It's too complex, and they may even love breaking the rules."

The worst two episodes she heard about was a partner flirting with a boss and an affair being uncovered when a partner said to a boss 'you shouldn't have them working so much overtime', to which the boss responded 'I don't'.

But if going alone is good for your career, it might not be beneficial for your domestic life.

"The only downside of not taking them is that it's not very good for the relationship," says Ms James. "They might worry about what you're getting up to and are you flirting with some guy from IT."

So if you're aware of the "rules" and you're relaxed about it, you should take your partner, says relationship coach Jo Hemmings. Treat it as an opportunity to show them off.

"Our working lives are something our partners don't get much of a glimpse of. We go off in the morning and get back in the evening. People are more than curious and fascinated about what goes on there and the people you work with.

Scene from BBC's The Office
Office hierarchies still apply

"To say to someone they can't come to your Christmas party, when partners have been invited, would put a big strain on the relationship and you'll need a good excuse. It would naturally arouse their suspicion."

Excluding them probably says more about you and your social discomfort than it does about your relationship, she says. But if it is your partner you're embarrassed about, then that is shocking. It's one of those occasions when a little white lie - saying partners aren't invited - might be better for the relationship.

One way around the plus-one dilemma is to extend it to plus two, which is what happened at ShortList Media this year. Its editorial director Phil Hilton says this meant his wife could bring a friend and could spend most of the night without him.

That works well because things happen at Christmas parties that you don't want your partner to witness, says Mr Hilton, once editor of lads' magazine Nuts. "Long-standing sexual tensions and long-held resentment over pay and work-related issues suddenly emerge under the influence of drink."

There is also a danger she will speak to your boss on your behalf over something you've mentioned to her over a glass of wine in the kitchen, he says, and before you know it she's jabbing him in the chest with her finger, which is a scene that could be career-damaging.

There's also a clash of your work and domestic personas, which can be very different, says Mr Hilton. The fiction you've constructed to your wife, that all the women at work are in their 60s and unattractive, will be revealed, as will the idealised work persona you've cultivated in your imagination.

"You've generally represented yourself to her as the essential lynchpin and father figure, someone without whom the office could not function, a very popular person who controls the social life of the workplace and someone that everyone has come to rely on and love.

"But when your wife turns up, it's clear you're a peripheral figure barely tolerated by everyone, including younger, hipper colleagues. That doesn't make you more attractive at home."

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