Usually it's lawsuit-wary HR nerds who generate the flaccid annual "tips" for socializing with co-workers at the holiday party. But this year, I'm ashamed to admit, it's a communicator, trying to sell books, about "body language."
Whoever generates the perennial holiday party tips, they should amount to a version of the classic John Denver carol, "Please, Daddy Don't Get Drunk This Christmas (I Don't Want to See My Mama Cry)."
Alas, they always go on from there, becoming God's Christmas present to Steve Crescenzo. (Have you seen his scary new blog photo? Eeek.)
Communication consultant Carol Kinsey Goman has written a number of good books. But her latest isn't one of them. It attempts to make novel a fact we have all intrinsically understood since we were nine months old: that body language speaks louder than words. And as part of her strategy for hawking The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work, Goman sent media outlets a series of "Tips for the Office Party."
Let's take the "tips" one by one, and analyze their usefulness to grown-up white-collar workers they purport to "help":
The desire to relax and have fun—especially in these challenging economic times—can be a highly anticipated, positive antidote to workplace stress. But when you combine the need to let your hair down with too many glasses of wine or cocktails, it's a mix that can cause trouble.
That's not a tip, it's a simple truth. Now here is a tip: Two hours or six drinks into the holiday party, whichever comes first, gather your wits and attempt to find another employee who is drunker than you. If you can find one, no worries! She'll be the sheepish one on Monday. If you can't—either because there is no one drunker than you, or because you can't walk or see—bid everyone an early good night and call a cab.
But no: instead, Goman gets into "body language" tips:
* Develop an inclusive, welcoming attitude. Pretend that you are the party's host or hostess, and that your job is to make others feel welcome and at ease. Approaching people with this attitude will immediately resonate in a positive way.
This isn't just useless, it's weird. Suddenly Drooling Louie from accounting is walking around like he owns the place, slapping backs and shaking hands and showing everyone where the restrooms are? You know everyone will just assume he's shitfaced.
* Stand tall. Your mother was right when she told you to stand up straight. As you pull your shoulders back and hold your head high, you assume a posture of confidence and self-esteem.
Yes, my mother was right. And I was seven. If I didn't listen to her at the dinner table, what are the odds I'm going to suddenly take her advice just in the nick of time to be a smashing hit at the company holiday party?
* Optimize the power of touch by shaking hands—but don't go overboard.
For instance, you shouldn't shake their breasts.
* Let your body show that you are at ease. If you want people to see you as comfortable and approachable, assume an open position with your legs about shoulder width apart and your arms loosely at your side. Don't cross your arms and legs or use objects as barriers. It looks as if you are closed off or resistant.
Because you are closed off and resistant, and for good reason: You're surrounded by smiling sharks who would like to have your job. One of the several absurdities about "body language" tips like these is that they pretend body language has no purpose other than to undermine you. Ultimately, when our brain stem tells us to cover our nuts, we can't and we shouldn't try instead to stand with our legs apart and our arms loosely at our side.
* Mirror the other person's gestures and expressions.
Carol: Everybody who doesn't have Asperger Syndrome does this automatically. Now, a book of Body Language Tips for People with Asperger Syndrome Who Nevertheless Have to Go to Holiday Parties … that might be worth something.
* Smile. A smile is an invitation, a sign of welcome. Smiling directly influences how other people respond to you. The human brain prefers happy faces, recognizing them more quickly than those with negative expressions. In fact, research shows that if you smile at someone, it activates the "reward center" in that person's brain. It is also a natural response for the other person to smile back at you.
Yes, Carol. And this is why we're drinking in the first place.
* Lean in slightly. Leaning forward shows you're engaged and interested, but also be respectful of other people's space. Although this varies by culture, in North American business situations, even in a party setting, that means staying at least 18 inches away.
Here's a tip: If you're calculating the number of inches between your forward-leaning face and your conversation-partner's schnoz, you're probably appearing painfully self-conscious, and condemning yourself to a career in the back room. Thanks, Carol!
* Use open arm movements and show the palms of your hands. Those gestures are subconsciously evaluated as positive, candid and persuasive. But keep your gestures below shoulder level. Flailing your arms in the air will not look convincing, only erratic.
Did you get that, Mussolini?
Look: The reason rational people focus on language in communication is that what we say is conscious, and how we say it so rarely is. If your natural body language makes you the leading horse's ass at your company's holiday party—or at the company itself—you ought to look for another place to work, where the people appreciate your shiny red nose.