The annual “holiday” office party is a ritual that I can happily forego now that I’ve had tenure for a while. I realize the idea is to develop some sort of more casual relationship with colleagues who don’t really associate with each other the rest of the year and appreciate that they do have lives outside work. And for many of them, some bonding over common goals or tribulations does indeed happen, fascilitated by wine and catered delicacies.
My experience with office parties follows a pretty rigid and extremely predictable script. Almost inevitably I will be questioned by colleagues and spouses alike about the status of my children. Not what new students I have, not the grants I have funded, or whether I had some good papers accepted lately — but that’s okay, this is a non-work meeting. What makes it less okay is that my husband is usually standing next to me, but they do not ask him about the children that he surely had some role in creating and raising. Him they ask about his work — is he still at so-and-so, and how does he like it there? And so it goes, around the room as the volume gets louder and the questions follow their prescribed pattern. Of course, even that would be okay if I could just boast about the maginificent accomplishments of each of my amazing children, as everybody else around me is doing. But I can’t, and I don’t want to because I know they couldn’t care less whether I had zero or 17 children, and whether they were all unique geniuses or failing every societal milestone.
I am not trying to imply that any of these occasions were somehow badly organized — in fact, the hosting has always been impeccable and much care always invested in preparing and ensuring that all guests feel welcome and have the opportunity to enjoy the gathering. What makes them unbearable to me is that they are the one time when my non-belonging is so obvious and so exaggerated that there is no way for me to just ignore it and pretend I am equal to the colleagues who are chatting away about who knows what fun things over the alcohol they enjoy and I do not like. I am the computer scientist who will get interrogated about her children at the same time that I am the mother who is responsible for their less-than-stellar performance (at any age) as compared to the offspring-related bragging filling the room. My spouse is an ornament whose only interesting feature is his job. It is very confusing to the spouses of male colleagues, I suppose, but he ends up having just me to talk with, which is probably easier in a quieter room at home.
I do like learning more about my colleagues because it makes our existense together better if we are able to see and treat each other as the full-featured human beings that we are, and not as the paper cutouts that the job interactions expose. However, the office party does not offer a forum for that for those of us that are not quite traditional in a few too many ways, and so I will continue to avoid them and learn more about my colleagues by taking advantage of the many random encounters we have throughout the year when we finally get back to sharing the hallways again.