Suzanne Fields
Beware the Christmas office party. There's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip, whether loose or puckered up. The U.S. Department of Labor advises employers to pour the ferment gingerly and never offer one "for the road." This will avoid lawsuits (and maybe save a life as well). The perception of "harassment" and "just being friendly" is a minefield in the eye of the participant. British researchers found that 2.3 million people "make fools of themselves every year at their firm's party." (That's all?) Add at least another million for those who can't remember what they did, foolish or not, and when they did it. In interviews with 1,200 Brits, however, researchers found that almost half managed to recall dirty dancing, one third had kissed a co-worker (with or without the mistletoe) and a fourth owned up to extravagant behavior, if not exhibitionism. A chastened 20 percent admitted speaking angrily to the boss. Irritability and garrulousness are side effects of eggnog and fruit cake. (Nearly everybody wants fruitcake banned, whether soaked in bourbon or not, on general principle.) Of course, the party is only one of the hazards of the season. It's reasonable to say that the holidays are filled with as much anxiety as pleasure, whether at home or at office. While buying a present for a co-worker or brother is a generous act, it's also fraught with apprehension and nervousness, the dreadful fear of being accused of terrible taste. Who doesn't remember the feelings of mortification on hearing the expression of hypocritical appreciation: "How clever of you to know I always wanted orange leather gloves, angora earmuffs or a Picasso swivel stick." Increasing numbers of Americans are giving up on personal presents altogether. The argyle sweaters and socks patiently knitted by women who had been freed from darning socks and ironing shirts are now themselves antique artifacts of another time. With more than half the women in the workforce, and increasing numbers of men who must dress to impress, fashion becomes a litmus test of discernment. Increasing numbers of men and women are avoiding risk and choosing the impersonal over the warm and fuzzy. Cool cash and plastic gift certificates are increasingly presents of choice, estimated to become a $70 billion market this season. An American Express survey found that gifts of cash or card are not only easier to choose than a tangible gift, but are more desirable to receive, with 69 percent preferring to give the green and 72 percent preferring to receive it. The message may not be uplifting, but it is reassuring. "The gift givers like cash and certificates because they are too tired or bored to shop," a financial analyst tells the New York Times. When you give money, you don't have to deal with a salesperson or bother to wrap, reducing human interaction and making the whole process more like a business transaction for busy bees. It may be a (dollar) sign of the times. Modern Christmas developed in the 19th century as "a festival of the family, a domestic counterpart to the sociable New Year celebration," writes Thomas Hine, in his book "I Want That! How We All Became Shoppers." Children no longer worked beside their parents, but were sheltered from the labors of productivity. The mother's role within a growing leisure class was to be home to provide moral guidance. She orchestrated the celebration of Christmas as central to family life and was the leading purchaser of gifts for children and fathers. The Christmas celebration continues to be dominated by Mom, only less so. As more mothers work outside the home, enduring the strains of too little time to shop, it's easier to shift decision-making to the recipient. No messy conversations with salespersons asking what they suggest. Economists say that we buy one-third of the year's retail goods during the holiday season, but increased gifts of money and plastic may change the stats for purchasing power by extending the season of buying. After-Christmas sales may actually determine the Christmas present. A discussion in Network World, a trade magazine aimed at business computer managers focused on the value of letting employees shop for Christmas presents online at work as cost-effective . Instead of leaving for the mall, the workers stay at their desks during a down time, buy Legos, Nikes and assorted "necessities" from Land's End while continuing to take business phone calls, e-mails and faxes. End result: increased productivity but at the cost of human interaction. No wonder we try to forget all this with extravagant behavior at the Christmas party. Informal surveys find that most workers prefer their Christmas party to be held outside the office. That may be the only way to escape the confines of the computer, but it also leads to greater temptations. So beware of the sauce. You don't want to be remembered as the office fruitcake.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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