No RSVP Required

I received an amazing email today: “[Our holiday party] is happening this year. In accordance with Michigan state laws, we are limiting the number of guests outside of our immediate family to zero. […] You are hereby uninvited.”

In other words, do not RSVP. Do not BYOB. Please find it in your heart to spread a little love this season, by staying the hell away.

And I realized, wow. That may have been the best party announcement I’ve received in, like, decades.

First of all, I was thrilled that they were not going to defy all logic and reason and have people over this year, despite the fact that they’ve been doing this party without fail for the last 25 years. But mainly, it made me hyper-aware of just how much I have grown to dislike going to these kinds of things.

And how there was a time in my life when I was totally hip to the holiday party thing.

Which then led me to wonder: where did that girl go, exactly?

If memory serves, my first exposure to an official annual holiday party was my first job out of college as an Assistant Language Teacher on the JET Programme. I remember being told that it was very important to make sure I attended end-of-year parties and beginning-of-year parties with the other teachers at my school, as much as I could. So I accepted every invitation extended to me, only missing the functions that were taking place while I did a brief jaunt back to Michigan for my own family traditions.

My memories of these parties are a bit fuzzy — granted, there was a lot of sake involved — but I can recall sitting on the tatami mat, legs folded underneath me, at a long table with all the other teachers from the school. More food being placed in front of me than I’d seen since the last wedding I’d attended. And of course, bottles of sake in the center, so that we could each refill one another’s cups (in Japan, you never fill your own, and you must fill that of others). I still had that nasty middle class American propensity to want to finish what I’d been given — to make sure I drank the entire drink, that they were kind enough to pour — which if you’ve been to Japan, you probably already know is a recipe for disaster. In Japan, you never leave a glass empty. When you’re done drinking, you are actually supposed to leave your glass full, to let the host know you feel completely satisfied and can’t drink another drop.

I eventually learned how to leave a full glass on the table. Pretty sure it was after this holiday party stint though. As I said, my memories are fuzzy.

But what I do remember, is thinking this whole holiday party tradition was absolutely brilliant. You get to step out of your “work mode” and get to know your coworkers — and in Japan, you especially can get to know your “superiors” — in a way that the structured working environment just doesn’t permit. Humanity has an opportunity to sneak in, and change the way you see one another. What a golden moment that is, to truly have the opportunity to connect.

What can I say — I was a fan.

Somewhere along the way, my perspective changed. I’m struggling to identify when the cynicism and irritation crept in, but it’s undeniable that it did.

Company holiday parties are different these days. No doubt largely because I’m not exploring a new culture, new people, and new expectations — and people are certainly not keeping my sake cup filled, at all costs. But I also think it’s because these parties aren’t really about connection anymore. I don’t feel like we are stripping off the work masks and throwing our humanity into the mix in a novel way. It’s just another piece of our work costume, to show we’re “in it to win it” and playing the game of building a successful career.

And maybe that’s what it was in Japan, too, but as the young expat teacher, I simply didn’t notice. Perhaps I fell for the illusion of sincerity, and didn’t have the wherewithal to see that it was just another sea of plastic faces.

Entirely possible. But I like my younger self’s version better.

I’ve been at my current company for nearly 15 years. The chairman absolutely loves the holiday party. He lays on the guilt if you don’t attend this party. He spends ridiculous amounts of money and lets you know in no uncertain terms that he is spending ridiculous amounts of money and by golly you need to go and appreciate the ridiculous amounts of money or you’re not living up to the expectations of your position.

I’m not being fair. He hasn’t been that weird about it in many years. But that’s the year we all remember. The bizarre laying on of condemnation to anyone who wasn’t planning on making an appearance. And the strange compulsion to come up with an extreme excuse if anyone asked why you weren’t there. It had to be on the level of what happened to your homework as a middle schooler. My dog ate my grandma, and shite like that. Truly astonishing nonsense.

Unless viewed through the lens of what I experienced in Japan.

And maybe it’s up to me to bring that attitude to the shindig, rather than expecting the shindig to bring it to me.

Like so many other things in life, I’m willing to bet that it’s my perspective that drives the experience. That tired old maxim about getting out of it what you put into it. And perhaps by removing my own mask, I can convince a few others to do the same.

Of course now I’ve taken the bizarre journey from being happy to receive my dis-invitation to wishing it were still happening, because I’d actually look forward to going this year. Then again, part of me wonders if this mini-epiphany would have happened at all, without this time to crank my inner introvert on high, and reconnect with my young expat self. Clearly she still has a lot of things to teach me, that I still desperately need to learn.

By the by, that amazing email I mentioned? It ended with a pre-invitation, to next year’s holiday party. To make up for all that we were losing in 2020. “Our festivities are on pause,” they said. “But they will be back again, and we can’t wait to see you.”

And I think now I can honestly respond, I can’t wait to see you, too.

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