A lot of us have been on both sides of this fence. We're standing there, trying to figure out how to make conversation with a coworker's spouse while roaming the crowded, noisy ballroom of the local Hilton. Or while loitering around the living room of the boss's house. Or while sitting around a long dinner table at a very nice restaurant. Does it matter where we are? Unless we've gotten to know this coworker's life partner off the clock, we may feel at a loss for words when in their company in a company-casual setting.
Business stories about company parties usually offer tips for interacting with customers and coworkers at the company party, but what happens when our better halves make up half of the guest list? What should we say to the silently-suffering spouse of a coworker who may have been dragged along to this special occasion?
When Our Spouse is in the House
The spouse of a coworker has a role to play at the company party, and that "role" is to make a good impression, which, by extension and theoretically speaking, should make his or her spouse (a.k.a., your coworker) look good. Wow, Jane's other half is so cool and easy to talk to! What to say, what not to say, and how to make others comfortable in our presence is a tightrope act of etiquette learned through years of hard-fought corporate party circuit experience, and perhaps a few (cough) mistakes along the way.
But so much for the spouse's role at the company party; we need to learn how to talk to them when this soiree is in full swing! Without further delay, here are six types of company spouses you might encounter at the company party:
1. The stay-at-home spouse. If you're a stay-at-home spouse/parent who has ever experienced the cold shoulder of someone quickly exiting the conversation after asking "What do you do?", then you know of what I speak. The stay-at-home spouse, however, is most likely wicked smart with an advanced degree and is able to converse on current events and pop culture in addition to mundane, kid-related topics. The stay-at-home spouse may also have a decade or more of experience in your industry (a lot of people meet their future spouse on the job, remember). Never forget that he or she is the one holding down the home front so your coworker can stay late to finish the project. Respect.
2. The oddball spouse. This is the significant other who works alone, perhaps as an independent contractor or small business owner. Perhaps he or she works in a job field that nobody really understands. He or she has eschewed the constraints of corporate life and could feel like somewhat of a rebel at the company party. You might ask about his or her industry, how the business works, what a typical day is like, and so on. If he or she gets tired of talking about it, then he or she will change the topic.
3. The overly-talkative spouse. On the one hand, interacting with a chatty spouse takes the pressure off, since he or she does most of the talking. On the other hand, he or she might just say something at the company party that reveals Too Much Information. For example, we learn that our coworker is looking for a new job on the down low, is planning to ask for a big raise next week, or wants to move out of state next year. It might be best to try to change the subject. You can always bring up the weather, which is the ultimate white flag of surrender that a conversation has run its course.
4. The super-quiet spouse. You ask an open-ended question and get a "yes" or "no" response in return. Nothing seems to be a real conversation starter. Chances are, the super-quiet spouse is simply shy, feels overwhelmed in social situations, is nervous about putting a wrong foot forward, or takes awhile to warm up to people. That's fine; a lot of us can relate! Simply say: "It's nice to meet you, make sure to try the pumpkin pie if you get a chance!" and move along. Maybe the two of you can talk again later after the initial shock has worn off.
5. The spouse with the dream job. This is the spouse who has a well-paying or creatively amazing job, but is playing the part of tag-along at this company party. This spouse may hold court with fascinating work stories, or bore everyone to tears with the detailed aspects of the work. In some cases, he or she might say very little (back to that "role" and "good impression" thing). The key here is balancing your questions with his or her comfort zone. And stay away from asking for free advice about your bad knee if your coworker's spouse happens to be an orthopedic surgeon.
6. The long-term unemployed spouse. The last question he or she wants to answer right now is "What do you do?" There are still too many long-term unemployed out there, struggling day in and day out to land a job comparable to what they used to do. It can be easy to start offering unsolicited job seeking advice and networking leads, but it's best to let him or her signal interest in receiving it. Refrain from complaining about your hectic, day-to-day job schedule (you're one of the lucky ones!), and wish him or her the best with the job hunt.
Everybody Brings Something To the Party
The key to successful conversation with anyone, anywhere, at any time is showing respect for them. Body language says it all without saying a word. Be a good listener who is able to make others feel like the only person in a big, noisy ballroom (no easy feat), pick up on cues that the other person would like to exit the conversation, and welcome your coworkers' life partners wholeheartedly to the party since they're a big part of the company, too. After all, this is the person your coworker goes home to when the work day is done, which lends a certain air of intrigue, doesn't it? It's amazing how some of the most confusing things about your coworker suddenly make sense.
Most of all, remember that everyone brings something to the table at the company party -- whether it's telling great jokes, making witty conversation, having a fascinating hobby, touting an interesting back story, boasting an odd field of expertise, knowing everything about wine, being a good listener, keeping the conversation going by creating interesting segues, being a great dancer, or making the best pumpkin pie we've ever tasted.
If all else fails, think about how you've felt attending your significant other's company holiday functions over the years (Excited? Anxious? Bored? Talkative? Exhausted?) and let the conversation flow from there. These company events are always...interesting...aren't they? The answer could be a whole, new conversation starter.