How to attend an office party without drinking

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As the days inch toward Christmas, holiday parties are dotting social calendars. These work-related parties constitute a necessary component of our corporate culture. They reward employees, allow for valuable bonding time between colleagues and offer opportunities to socialize with bosses on a more human level.

However, these events can also be the stuff of legends, and not in a good way. Several media outlets frequently run office-party horror stories. For example, NPR did a roundup last year of embarrassing incidents that occurred as a result of alcohol.

In one incident, three co-workers lost their jobs after being found in the restroom – “they weren’t resting.” In another case, one employee confessed to a co-worker that she was in love with him. More frequently, the storiesjust involve falling over, vomiting or merely saying things one shouldn’t.

Horror stories aside, casual and excessive drinking has become normalized. The office of the U.S. Surgeon General recently released its first report on substance abuse and found that in 2015, over 66 million people, or almost a quarter of all youth and adults, admitted to binge drinking in the previous month.

Drinking in an office setting may be worse than in other social settings, since our brain does not compensate for the effects of alcohol in a new setting as it would in a familiar one, such as home or bar.

So how does one attend an office meeting and not drink? According to Tara Cottrell, co-author of Buddha’s Diet: The Ancient Art of Losing Weight Without Losing Your Mind, one way to start is to hold a non-alcoholic beverage in hand until that awkwardness soon dissipates.

“The truth is people generally don’t notice what you are drinking. A club soda with a lime looks exactly the same as a gin and tonic. In fact pretty much any soda in a short glass with a cocktail straw looks like a mixed drink. And most bartenders can whip up a good mocktail. Is it ridiculous to pretend to be drinking when you don’t actually want to drink? Maybe. But as you try this way of socializing, it may help ease the transition,” she said.

Your cover may get blown if someone buys a round of drinks and you need to explain you aren’t drinking. She recommends confidently responding that you are trying something new by not drinking, or simply don’t feel like it.

On occasion, someone at the party may want to probe some more – especially if they are considering not drinking, or if they feel defensive about their own alcohol consumption. That’s a small price to pay to maintain the mental acuity to pick up subtle insights about your colleagues, that you otherwise may not have noticed under the influence of alcohol, Ms. Cottrell argues.

Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Ms. Cottrell co-wrote the book with Dan Zigmond, a writer, data scientist and Zen priest who advises startups and venture-capital firms on data and health. This is relevant since health and business trends sometimes do come out of Silicon Valley first. For example, Bulletproof Coffee, a concoction that includes butter instead of milk, hit it big among the startup crowd in 2014 as a way to “hack” your body into better performance.

According to research sponsored by Heineken, 75 per cent of millennials limit the amount of alcohol they consume on a night out. The research also shows that part of this moderation stems from a shifting perception of what makes for a good night, and good food with friends often takes priority.

Ms. Cottrell said millennials are also more focused on wellness, which isn’t compatible with drinking. She sees more parties encompassing yoga and mindfulness instead. For example, in New York City, there is a trend toward early morning “sober raves,” where the health-minded embark on “juice crawls.”

Rejecting the traditional idea that booze has to be part of a good time means opening up to new, healthier ways to connect with others, she said.

Part of the issue with drinking at work events comes down to a lack of creativity. Often people suggest it simply because they can’t think of anything else to do.

“There’s no law that says drinking with co-workers is the only way to socialize and connect with them. Think about what’s near your office that maybe you haven’t tried as a group. Could you go bowling? Go see a movie together? Check out some live music?”

While all those activities may also lend themselves to drinking, it takes the emphasis off merely standing around and throwing back shots. While it may seem a cop-out to some – or even a reason to feign sickness when the holiday party date arrives – it does prevent you from making one of those lists of “worst office party” stories that may haunt your career.

Leah Eichler (@LeahEichler) writes about workplace trends

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