Dealing with parties when you don't like parties.
March 14, 2014 7:27 AM   Subscribe

Every year, my work holds a big party to which we invite all our clients - the idea is we get to meet them and get to know them as people rather than voices on the phone. Every year, I end up having an anxiety attack and going home early, partly because I am rubbish at going out, partly because it is in an environment that I find difficult to cope with. We are expected to attend. What should I do?

Background for me: I have bipolar disorder, and coincidentally the party happens around the time I go through a low period. I find social gatherings very difficult - my industry is very middle class, I am not, and if I'm feeling less than sociable I feel like an outlier because I'm not a short skinny posh person who went to private school or had their parents help them buy a house - I know this is my issue and not theirs, but I feel acutely aware of it when I am on a work lunch or similar. (I don't think this makes me a better or worse person, it just makes me feel like it can be hard to relate.) The nature of our work means we can often have a difference of opinion with those with whom we are dealing, so we try and organise things like this or working lunches to build relationships - our job means we can be put under pressure, which is fine, but it's the social aspect which I can find tricky. (The clients of mine who happened to be coming last night had complained about me to a superior, so I was feeling nervous about seeing them and unsure whether to bring this up.)

I find social gatherings generally difficult, because I end up thinking 'what do I do now? What happens now? What should I be doing?' I went to pubs and clubs as a teenager and would end up stacking cups or peeling the labels off of bottles because I felt really awkward. When I socialise with friends, it tends to be at events (concerts, readings etc) or at each others' places. Being in a large room where it's hard to see and especially hard to hear does not suit me at all - if there are two conversations going on, and I don't know what I'm meant to be listening to, I start to get very antsy. One of these parties was held last night, and I ended up locking myself in a toilet cubicle for an hour as it meant I didn't have to go out or do anything or speak to anyone (as I said, I've been feeling low lately, and would possibly have felt the same in my house.) and I was having intrusive thoughts which I really didn't want to take any notice of. I'm really frustrated by this - eveyr year I dress up and try and get myself in the mood, and I know I'm a lot more sociable and confident than I used to be, but for some reason the environment or general medical issues get in the way. I used to drink to relax my nerves, but I can't with the medication I'm on. I feel a lot like when I was thirteen and always felt out of place at parties, and fuck that noise.

Background for the events: these are held in large nightclubs, with around 3000 people attending as well as the staff here. Rather than just using the nightclub as a venue, it's held as a regular night - last night there were DJs and acrobats performing. Basically, it's a club night with canapes. It was difficult to speak to someone without shouting in ears, and I couldn't see because the lighting was dark and lasery. I needed to make a phone-call and neither the smoking area nor toilets were quiet enough to allow me to do that - speaking to or finding people was impossible. The event takes a lot of time, effort and money to arrange, and I know some others at work don't like the nightclub environment as it's not to their taste or they find it difficult to chat to people. However, it means we can invite all the clients we have and they can have a good time and feel more positive about dealing with us as a company.

I know some will suggest therapy, and that's a good suggestion and one I will pursue for additional reasons. (Maybe CBT as it seems more practical for dealing with intrusive thoughts/feelings.) What I want to know is what I can do given this environment tends to exacerbate the anxiety that I can feel from time to time. Is there a way I can bring this up that doesn't make me sound like I'm making things difficult? (I am 'out' as bipolar at work.) I don't want to sound like a special snowflake, and I don't think asking to be excused each year would work - I have my own set of clients who I am expected to invite and if they come along and don't see me it could be detrimental to my working relationship with them. So I'm trying to think of a better way.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Hopefully, you're medicated and you might want to add therapy to the mix.

Now, how to deal with this nightmare. Accept that it sucks. NO ONE is having a good time! It's just a work obligation. There is no expectation that anyone will have a good time. It's all for show.

I'm curious why your customers come. If I were a customer, you wouldn't catch me withing 500 yards of this kind of shindig.

Here's what you do. Go to the party, arrive early and hang by the door. When your customers come in, shake hands and point them towards the bar, say, "Bar's over there, they make a wicked martini! I'll catch up with you later!" Then hang by the door and repeat with other customers of yours.

About 45 minutes into the party, dip outside for a bit to catch your breath, check your phone and get your game-face on.

Then go back inside and find your customers again, when you find them, say, "Hey! How's it going? Enjoying the party?" No one expects that you'll have any cogent conversations with Miley Cyrus in the background, just make sure they have a beverage, and pat them on the back. "You know how it is at these things, circulation. Oh, there's my boss, let me introduce you." Introduce your boss to your customer, "Customer, this is our Managing Director, MD, this is Customer, they just bought our new Gazingus Pin offering." Your boss can take over, and as they're making small talk, you can nod at someone across the room.

The idea is, greet at door, meet in the party, circulate and after about 90 minutes, it should be okay to fade.

If there's a pre-determined end-time, stay until then.

Don't drink. It's tempting,, you'll feel gross.

Have a nice meal before hand. You'll feel better with a nice salad, or a steak and potato in you. The nibblies they'll put out won't do it.

Also, what was the feedback you got from your boss from last time? Was it that you weren't there? Was it that you didn't greet them? Whatever it was, do the opposite this time.

Gird you loins, and accept that we all have to do this kind of shit every so often.

You'll be okay. It's just small talk and booze.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:50 AM on March 14, 2014 [17 favorites]

First of all, I understand. I'm also not exactly a skinny posh person who went to private school (state school ftw). But the stuff that makes you an outlier doesn't make you a weirdo, it makes you interesting. Try to think about it that way.

IMO, on a practical level, there are two ways to deal with this. One is to talk to your doctor to see if you can get a prescription for something that will help. Depending on how your issues manifest themselves, beta blockers might be a good idea - they help minimize the physical effects of an anxiety attack, which may make it easier to keep yourself in the right frame of mind.

Another way to deal is to teach yourself how to behave at such events. Look at what other people do. If you can't do that, find something that works for you. Ask people questions. People love to talk about themselves. I'm not great in social situations so I try to prepare by coming up with a few answers to questions I know people will ask ("how have you been?" "Oh, I'm doing great, working on a new project, just got back from visiting family, making summer plans, what about you?") and preparing questions I can ask ("so what are you up to this weekend?" "have you seen any good movies lately?")

Also, try not to dread it. I had to do a similar work thing recently (though not in a nightclub - jesus) and I ended up talking to some rando. It turned out that we both love the same football team. Go figure. So you never know what's going to happen.

If you start feeling anxious, go into a ladies room and count to 100, take 10 deep breaths, look at a picture of your cat on your phone, grab a glass of water from the bar and dive back in. That's what I would do, at any rate. I also try to tell myself when I face difficult feelings that feelings are temporary, they're just feelings, and they don't last. I may feel sad right now but that doesn't mean I will feel sad for the rest of my life.

Hope that helps, I know you can do it.
posted by kat518 at 7:59 AM on March 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

At first I was imagining a networking-type event where you needed to chat with groups of clients and strangers and ask about their families and their alma maters. However as I moved on to your description of the night-club type atmosphere I began to think that the expectation here is probably just that you are present, greet your clients, and make sure they are comfortable.

It seems to me that you are being hard on yourself and are pretty anxious right now. I wonder where the expectations are coming from - is that your idea of what you should accomplish at this event, or your manager's?

Has your boss ever stated an expectation for what you should be doing at these events or how long you should stay? Has there been any issue with you leaving early in the past? If your boss doesn't have an issue with it, then why not show up early, greet your clients as Ruthless describes, and then politely leave after an appropriate amount of time.

Define the expectation, and go from there.
posted by bunderful at 8:00 AM on March 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

This won't help you immediately, but you may be able to get accomodations for your Bipolar disorder through ADA if you're in the US. As long as parties are not an integral part of your job, you could possibly request an alternate work assignment in lieu of large gatherings, if your doctor could argue that your condition made it a psychological hardship for you to attend. Some workplaces are open to discussing alternate arrangements when presented with an ADA request. Others are less so, so it's up to you to read the environment.
posted by bibliowench at 8:02 AM on March 14, 2014

Is the venue for these things already completely set, or can you bring a serious and strong suggestion in? Many nightclubs will have rooms specifically for different, calmer, quieter environments. Often they're called lounges - sometimes a nightclub will call itself a lounge entirely, if it's less about dancing, and sometimes nightclubs will have themed lounges inside, or rooms that are normally for VIPs only. It sounds like your company does enough business for such a club as to buy out a VIP lounge or a secondary bar. My point is, can you find a nightclub that has spaces like this? Maybe ask coworkers, or your clients who don't like noise, or just somebody whose taste you trust.

Then, strongly suggest that your company use this venue, pointing out all the issues it would help with (clients who would prefer a different environment, the impression of classiness, the opportunity for actual networking if the stars align because people can hear each other, building a relationship with a single club, etc). Then, at the actual party itself, set up camp in the lounge. Have calm, quiet time. Everybody in there will want to be more relaxed. You can slip out to the rest of the club with the excuse that you're checking on newcomers or coworkers, but you can actually just leave entirely for small chunks of time, and come back to the lounge.

As for some of the other things broached in your question, try to think of your different life experience as what it actually is: interesting to somebody who hasn't had it. Instead of trying to relate through similarities, practice relating through differences. Simple example: "Oh, I didn't go to college. I've been working since just out of high school." "Wow, really? What was that like?" "I was eighteen! It was very confusing." "Haha, yeah, I know what you mean!" I know this might seem really glib to you. Class differences can be a huge punch to the gut. And you don't want to present yourself as a fascinating bug, or anything. But try asking people questions right back. People love talking about themselves, especially to someone who seems like they might not have heard it all before. (And you can pretend that's the case, for one night a year.)
posted by Mizu at 8:26 AM on March 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

You are not wrong in your assessment of this event. It sounds like a nightmare and I can guarantee you that almost everyone there is dying inside. What you need is a game plan. Once the plan is executed, then you can leave. So, give yourself an assignment to talk to x number of clients, and a script for things you can say to them, and also for how you'll get out of the conversation. Go ahead and write it down. Then you can also plan little reprieves for yourself, like after the first two clients, I can go hide in the bathroom for a few minutes to regroup. Plan it out and execute it like a project. Then, once you're done, you can go home and have a big bowl of ice cream, or whatever will soothe your nerves.

Sorry you have to go to this, it really does sound horrible. I too wonder why any clients would go of their own accord.
posted by HotToddy at 8:27 AM on March 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

This sounds pretty dreadful, and I'm not sure exactly what it is you're expected to do at the event? But, surely, in this environment (3000 people! Jesus!) you're not supposed to be actually conducting business, or even having actual conversations? I agree with HotToddy - set yourself a few tasks for things you want to accomplish at the event (I'm assuming you should be saying hi to your clients and asking whether they're enjoying themselves), and check them off the list, and when you're done, leave, or if you need to be seen towards the end of the event, GO AHEAD AND HIDE IN THE TOILET CUBICLE! (With earplugs, if necessary.)

As for the class stuff, it's not important for this event. Just keep the conversation beyond fluffy and lightweight. Suggestions:

posted by mskyle at 8:41 AM on March 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Would it help to see yourself as a host at these parties, rather than as a guest? I put this as a question because I don't know if it would work for you, though it really helps me. A lot of my discomfort at parties comes from what you said (not knowing what I'm supposed to do with myself and feeling awkward when I'm just wandering around without anyone talking to me). But at an event where I'm attending with a specific purpose and people are theoretically coming in part to see me, I play up the host role and feel much less awkward. There's no wondering if people will like me enough to invite me again or if I'm good enough for this crowd, because I'm the reason they're there. And I can be a gracious host and make them comfortable.

It seems like you're ideally supposed to become all friendly with your clients, which seems kind of unrealistic given the somewhat hostile environment and the fact that you're not a flagrant extravert. So you could give yourself a different goal, like "Walk up to each client you work with, have a 1.5 minute conversation with them where you 1. smile, 2. tell them you're so glad they could come, 3. possibly say something quick about their kids/their business/how great they're looking, 4. tell them you hope they really enjoy the evening/the acrobats, and 5. then move on." Like a host at a reception. If you want to pad the conversation out, you can add things like "it's so nice to see the person behind the voice" or "have you found the food/drinks?" or "I hope it's not too loud here for you" (if they say it is, you've got something to bond over).

I don't know if this would work given your work requirements (you say that not showing up could be detrimental to your client relationships, so I don't know exactly how high much time you're required to spend with each client). However, it seems like it might help to go in with a very specific plan for interactions - and one that takes it easier on you than just socializing the whole time.

Even if you have to interact more than the host-mode script above, you can still make life easier for yourself. For example, your plan can be to talk with each client for 6 minutes and then head off to the bathroom or the food/drink area for another 8 minutes, to get some quiet time. Don't see that as a failure -- take it as part of your plan, and a fairly healthy one at that.

Some other strategies: when you find yourself caught between two conversations, evaluate whether both parties are expecting you to listen to them or not. If not, just fade out of one conversation and tell the other party, confidentially, "it's so hard to hear at these things, isn't it?" A friendly smile, or a wry smile, or any smile at all makes almost anything you say socially acceptable. Similarly, if both parties seem to want to involve you, just tell one of them "You know, I think I'm caught in two conversations! Let me finish this [other] one up, because I want to hear what you're saying about ______." And then come back to them a few minutes later. Again, if you say it in a really friendly way it's not something people get upset about.

See if there's anyone else at work who seems party-awkward. You might be able to navigate the parties together, going around in pairs to your clients, or just taking time off from client shmoozing to hang out a bit with each other.

Finally, don't be hard on yourself. If clients leave the event with an impression of you as being nice, even if not necessarily fascinating or their best friend or whatever, that seems to fulfill the purpose of the event. A lot of people are bad at this: people will come up to me at parties and make conversation and not seem particularly interested, which makes me feel not great about myself or them. But if someone shows up for just a few seconds but seems genuinely glad to see me, I'm left feeling good about the both of us.
posted by egg drop at 9:35 AM on March 14, 2014

I work in a field where there's a certain degree of networking via social events like this, so I've become a bit of a pro at handling my awkwardness.

Go and plan to stay for one drink. You don't have to show up when it starts and go home when it's officially over. You're just "making an appearance".

This time constraint means that you can put the focus on doing the errand of making small talk with all the work contacts who need to see that you were there. Maybe this is your immediate supervisor (who'd think less of you if they didn't see you there), or maybe this is a client or two that you work particularly closely with. Maybe you just put in a quick appearance with the one person at work you actually get along with.

So you arrive, get a drink or food or whatever, and then you start looking for people you need to talk to in the crowd.

You find a person. You go hover in their little cluster of people until you have an in to talk or see an opening to pull your person away. You make like two minutes of polite small talk. "I didn't know you were a white wine drinker!" "So nice to put a face with a name!" "Man, Draper's presentation last week was crazy, wasn't it?" whatever. Nobody actually cares what you say.

When you're done talking, you are totally allowed to just say, "There are a bunch of other people I need to say hi to, but [boring pleasantry]? Have fun!" and start the process over again. Skim crowd. Find person. A few minutes of small talk. Done.

When you're finished seeing everybody you absolutely need to see, leave.

Congratulations, you just negotiated an annoying work party you didn't actually want to attend! Pat yourself on the back!

Also, you mention the hostile nightclub atmosphere -- all the better! Now you really barely have to talk to anyone and have TONS of excuses to do what you have to do and split. Shorten those interactions from two minutes to thirty seconds. Feel free to lean heavily on not being able to talk to people. Just say stuff like, "So good to finally meet you!" etc and then quickly move on. No need to even really come up with small talk. If someone at work says something like, "You left early Friday night..." you can just actually say, "I'm not really that into the whole club thing, and it was really hard to chat with people, so I made an early night of it," or whatever. You don't have to pretend you had a great time and loved the venue.

(I'm convinced people get married and have kids as a way to bow out of these events, for what it's worth.)
posted by Sara C. at 9:48 AM on March 14, 2014

I find that people get very drunk at events like this.

I, like you, but for somewhat different reasons, can also not abide such events. They are my worst nightmare. I also have to go.

What I do is come a little late, once people are already drinking and thus sociable and likely to start a conversation (I can't start conversations), and stay a little while, making sure to talk to a few key people who will remember that they talked to me and that I was there. Once I can tell people are getting drunk, I leave. Drunk people don't notice when people they had a short conversation with fifteen minutes ago slip out.

I usually manage to leave after half an hour. I'm convinced I can get it down to fifteen minutes if I time my arrival right.
posted by millipede at 10:11 AM on March 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

You know you're more confident and sociable than you used to be, just keep faking that you enjoy parties and it'll continue to feel more natural. Smiling and asking a generic personal question or giving a compliment is doing fine (and yes, do this without bitterness for the person who complained about you so they know there's no hard feelings). Everyone likes being told that you're happy to see them, and you *are* happy to see them because it means your business has customers.

As far as the class difference thing, remind yourself that everyone has their own anxieties about fitting in - class isn't insulation against feeling like the odd one out, or worrying if you're dressed properly, or whatever. Just listen to what your posh clients are saying and look for common ground.
posted by momus_window at 12:15 PM on March 14, 2014

I'd like to add to egg drop's suggestion above of using the bathroom retreat as part of a strategy. I've done this at similarly awful social events, and what helps me stay balanced is to think of "away time" i.e. hiding somewhere by myself, as a reward for being social for 10 minutes.

If you find that hiding in the bathroom or stepping outside every so often helps you maintain a facade and keep from running away from the event entirely, then that is a legitimate need and NOT a panicky last resort. Earn those little breaks by putting on a brave face, and doing whatever your company expects you do to make enough of an appearance.

"I couldn't see because the lighting was dark and lasery"

Then nobody will know when you've disappeared! Make eye contact and shout one idiotic small-talk sentence to three key co-workers or clients who need to see you at this event, then vanish for a bit, breathe, take as much of a time out as you need, and jump back in and do it again. Go home and treat yourself to something really good.
posted by jessicapierce at 12:19 PM on March 14, 2014

Depending on your personality, it might be easier for you if you are able to get yourself assigned to a task while you're there, to give yourself something to do other than feel awkward between greetings. Can you ask to take photos, be in charge of handing out food, etc.?
posted by metasarah at 1:33 PM on March 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

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