Carol Kinsey GomanThe holiday office party offers a great opportunity to socialize with co-workers, meet new people, and develop or deepen relationships. However, a holiday get-together can also quickly turn into a career-limiting event unless you understand the do’s and don’ts of appropriate behaviour.

The desire to relax and have fun 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. You may forget that this is not the time to rant about the depreciated value of your pension, tell the latest off-colour joke, or let your boss know that the whole department resents her micro-management style. In fact, those kinds of inappropriate comments, which all too often slip out after a few drinks, may not only cost you a promotion but quite possibly a job.

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On the other hand, the holiday party is a wonderful time to mingle with colleagues in a less pressured setting. It’s a great chance to thank those who have been helpful or supportive throughout the year. It may even be an opportunity to meet with senior executives to introduce yourself or get to know them on a more personal level.

But there is another personal dynamic you should be aware of at an office party beyond moderate drinking and monitoring what you say: It is also about understanding the impact of everything you don’t say.

In all workplace situations, including office parties, your nonverbal behaviour speaks volumes. The trick is to actually embody the messages that you want delivered. Here are some body language tips that will help your holiday office party be a personal and professional success for you:

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.

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.

Optimize the power of touch by shaking hands – but don’t go overboard. The way you greet your fellow party-goers can have a huge impact on their perception of you. A firm handshake is a business skill worth developing, and a light touch on the arm or shoulder can create an instant bond. But if you hang on people or touch them too frequently, you send unintended signals of neediness or flirtation.

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.

Mirror the other person’s gestures and expressions. When we meet others for the first time, we subconsciously scan the other person’s body to see if they move or gesture in a similar way to us. When you subtly mimic the person you are speaking to, it is a way of silently saying, “We are alike. We feel the same and have the same attitudes.”

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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 centre” in that person’s brain. It is also a natural response for the other person to smile back at you.

Make positive eye contact. Looking at someone’s eyes transmits energy and indicates interest and openness. (To improve your eye contact, make a practice of noticing the eye colour of everyone you talk with at the party.)

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.

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.

You should definitely attend the holiday office party and have a good time. But remember, you’re at a work-related social function that is just as important as any other business function. Keep these tips in mind and use the office party to help advance, not derail your career!

Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence. For interview requests, click here.

The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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