TERRY PRONE: It’s time to hear the sober truth about office Christmas parties

For many of us, the office Christmas party can put a serious damper on the festive spirit, writes Terry Prone.

For many of us, the office Christmas party can put a serious damper on the festive spirit.

THIS morning, I introduce readers of the Irish Examiner to a new emotional concept or gesture. The suffocated double-take. Now, you are familiar with the bog-standard double take. It’s the facial version of “Oh My God”.

With me so far? Good. The suffocated double-take, on the other hand, is complicated, requiring the face to register extreme astonishment (and perhaps approval) and then speedily replace the first expression with one of bland uninterest, because bland uninterest doesn’t get you sued.

I witnessed this complicated facial rearrangement on Friday, when The Lawyer arrived just as the two guys who had landed moments before her were fighting with the cafetière. I never do the cafetière since the day it fought back and covered a client of mine in scalding coffee grounds. There is no look to equal the hate-filled glare of a client steaming from freshly applied coffee and covered head to toe with coffee grounds like dirty dandruff. Although, give him his due, he stayed on retainer and I’ll thank you not to suggest a sado-masochistic thread in my professional relationships.

Anyway, on Friday, while the guys did the coffee, I sat waiting to be served, on the door side of the table. This meant that when The Lawyer arrived, she arrived behind me and I had a ring-side seat for the reactions.

Each of the guys did double takes. The one on the left looked astonished, realised he looked astonished and — in the interests of personal safety — immediately modified astonished into bored and surly. The one on the right went straight to approbation and delight, his mouth opening to verbally express both. Then you could almost hear his brain ratcheting up into rectidudinous reminder mode and his mouth closed right back down with an almost audible click.

I turned around with some difficulty, the boss having failed to equip our conference room with whirly chairs, and there was The Lawyer. Now, this particular female lawyer is always — how shall I put it? Give me a safe word, here. Personable, I hear you offer. I’ll go with that. Even on an off day, this lawyer would be personable. On Friday, she was due north of spectacular. The hair was coiffed into a glossy confection. The dress was wraparound velvet chocolate. The shoes dusted cocoa suede. The make up was so luscious, it looked like once she’d located Billy Crystal, she’d be co-presenting the Oscars with him. I had to admit that the reactions from the two on the other side of the table were totally justified. Understated, even.

At this point I took a risk. I figured I was protected from a harrassment suit by virtue of advanced age and being of the same gender as The Lawyer. I also figured brevity might get me a free pass. I mean, what woman is going to sue another woman for one approving syllable?

“Wow!” I said, in a non-specific kind of way.

The Lawyer laid down the small mountain of lever arch files which are the accessory du jour of any good legal figure, and laughed.

“Our office has its Christmas party tonight,” she said. “And I have back-to-back meetings until right before it starts.”

Your Honour, I put it to you that this is the perfect example of Reconstituted Celtic Tiger times: A woman who has to dress at dawn for a Christmas office party happening 13 hours later. A woman who must, despite working all day, maintain the look she had before the breakfast she didn’t eat.

Now, before the weekend our own office party had been and gone and I’m happy to report no casualties. Of course, there was the usual sweet course regret, where all the soufflés and other tasty morsels are set down in front of whoever ordered what, and at least half the people present decide they made the wrong choice. In this instance, the warm roundy brownie on the plate of the man beside me looked so appetising I begged a bit, demonstrating my dessert spoon was pristine. Except it turned out not to be a brownie. It turned out to be a roundy slice of Christmas pudding, and as I dealt with the surprise, I realised that every second person the full length of the long table had done the same — asked the person next to them for permission to sample, and been just as surprised as I was. It wasn’t a bad surprise. It simply required recalibration. Like someone who had ordered a sheep and had a goat delivered. The goat would be appealing but your plans to start a knitting business would be squelched, right there. Hence the need for fast re-calibration, as with the brownie that wasn’t. Later on Friday, I discovered a teetotaler who has mutinied, this year, at the prospect of being a designated sober driver at her company’s upcoming Christmas party. She was one of a team, within her company, last year, who volunteered to drive home the inebriated.

The heroism of this must not be underestimated. It’s not so much being the driver, as being the only sober one when everybody else is devoting themselves to mental extinction through alcohol but, in the process, convincing themselves that the late deeply regretted AA Gill was only trotting after them when it came to the issuance of witty one liners. Being the only sober one in a situation of rapidly eroding collective wit is a pain, not least because some bit of the reptile brain in each inebriated partygoer is telling them that they’re not being that funny really, and that the sober one knows the unacceptable truth.

The teetotaler who mutinied this year and rejected the designated driver role used to have no problem staying through the more rancid moments of her company’s Christmas party in order to take home paralytic pals. Last year, however, she told me, she had one transformative experience. She left the biggest and drunkest in her car till last, a miscalculation which left sober, tiny her facing a comatose substantial man tightly lodged in the back seat of her car. Failing to wake or dislodge him, she eventually knocked on his front door and explained to his dressing-gowned wife that she needed help to get him in. The dressing-gowned wife tightened the belt of her gown around her in a marked manner and went to examine her nearest and drunkest by street lamp.

“I’m sorry,” she told the designated driver. “Once too often. Your problem.”

She demonstrated a fair turn of speed up the path, into the house and banged the door. His colleague drove to her own house, took a duvet and wrapped it around him, left the car unlocked and headed for bed. “And what did I get for it?” she bitterly asks. “He nicked my duvet, has never spoken to me again, and my good deed is going to screw with my promotion chances. I’m not even going to this year’s party.”

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

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