Nobody likes a party pooper

December 24, 2004

Exhibiting a little bit of festive spirit is to be encouraged, writes Harriet Swain, but be sure to follow a few basic rules if you want your Christmas bash to go with a bang

Feeling festive? Full of Christmas cheer and goodwill towards men (and women)? Or so busy worrying about the research assessment exercise and teaching targets that you've forgotten how to have fun? Bah humbug, you say as you shuffle out of the office ignoring your colleagues. Well, lighten up. Your colleagues and students will be much happier if you try a bit of seasonal spirit.

"Any gesture is a good gesture and should be received in the spirit it is intended," says Jonathan Emmins, development director of National Union of Students Ents. He says that students will appreciate anything that exceeds expectations - whether a bit of festive decoration, messages in student pigeonholes, a get-together - but he warns that they will be aware of inconsistency. "If you are a grouch the rest of the year, it may come across as not very congruent with how you are the rest of the time," he says. And students may find a social occasion with a generally unsociable lecturer more of a strain than a pleasure.

Cary Cooper, professor of psychology and health at Lancaster University, says morale boosts are vital in academia, and academics should think more creatively about how to deliver them. Heads of department should give small gifts to their staff - particularly to hard-working clerical staff, he says. He also suggests looking to industry for ideas of activities to bring people together - clay-pigeon shooting, having lunch on a canal boat, going to a health farm, for example. "You should be thinking about something a bit different that's not just a meal," he says. He says it should be something that people can talk about and that helps them to unwind.

If a meal is the only feasible option, it must be away from the university campus, he advises. This makes it easier to treat people as individuals rather than continuing to relate to them in their university roles.

Dressing up in some way can also help. "Tell everyone at the lunch they must dress in the Christmas spirit and the winner gets a bottle so at least you are being individual about what you wear," he says. "Anything to get the pressure off."

If your sense of academic detachment gets you squirming at the idea of confronting colleagues dressed as a reindeer, employing irony might be a good idea. Oliver Double, lecturer in drama at Kent University, who teaches a course in stand-up comedy, says: "Irony is great because you can enjoy (the event) and laugh at it at the same time. The whole joke is that it's sort of embarrassing but it's controlled embarrassment."

He puts on a kitsch Christmas special, singing cheesy Christmas songs, dressing up as Santa and throwing sweets to the audience. From his comedy show experience, he has learnt that the way events are set up is essential.

A show arranged at 7.30pm in fixed seating will have a very different atmosphere to exactly the same show staged at 9pm in a pub.

A seasonal university party should always aim for the 9pm-in-a-pub feel, he suggests. "There are perhaps some academics who prize hierarchy and formality, and there is no place for that," he says. "Your working life is easier if you have the social skills to be informal."

Peter Spencer, hospitality group leader in the faculty of organisation and management at Sheffield Hallam University, agrees that informality is key.

"I always try to make very clear - especially to senior colleagues - that Christmas parties are not an opportunity for some end-of-session proselytising," he says. "It's amazing how many academics are inflicted with a kind of socially autistic perspective and are unable to separate a social function from an academic one."

He suggests ensuring that food is casual - for example, bite-sized party food - and that it is delivered informally; giving the dean first go at the buffet is not a good idea.

While he concedes that alcohol makes parties go with a swing, he says that studies have shown that the very thought of alcohol is enough to make people relax, so you don't need to be too generous.

As for how to develop the relaxed social skills essential for a party - apart from thinking you've achieved them after a few drinks - Double says it is all about reading your audience, listening to them and being aware of their reactions to you. "You have to be sensitive to who people are in the broadest possible sense," he says.

Sound too touchy-feely? Well, you could always turn to mathematics. Rob Eastaway, a mathematician and writer, and Len Fisher, honorary research fellow in physics, at Bristol University, have used probability and adapted game theory to calculate the best way to make a party go with a swing. One of their findings is that to get people mingling, you need different kinds of food and drink on tables in separate parts of the room. As guests oscillate between them, they have more chance of bumping into each other.

If, however, you are holding a sit-down meal you need to avoid a table where guests can talk only to people on their left or right because this increases their probability of having no one to talk to.

On a large round table, the "gooseberry factor" can be as high as one in seven, while on a table of four it is non-existent. Finally, if looking for love, you should be aware that the mathematically optimal person to settle for will pass by once you have met 37 per cent of the people with whom you could potentially make a date.

If all this fails to get you in the party mood, you need to listen to Double's advice. "My best tip is to take as much time off over Christmas and spend as much time with your family as possible," he says.

"I feel far more festive away from the university."


Get away from the university

Do something a bit different

Do something as a group

Don't get too drunk

Don't ignore the season

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