It’s only recently since coming to Boston that I’ve been labeled the S.O., which means only “significant other” whether I happen to be significant or not. I have had to battle with this role repeatedly, and never really understood why that label was better or worse than the term “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.” Then again, labeling is an awkward business, which fits nicely with the awkward task of mixing such truly different aspects of your life, work and play. I feel so extremely entrenched in both, it should be natural to mix the two, right? I find that different jobs do this to varying degrees. At my last job, I never felt it was acceptable to bring the two together, so I was understandably confused when I had been at my current job for nearly one month, and we all headed out with our partners for a weekend at the Cape: sun, bathing suits, and alcohol included. Now, the season has turned to the topic once again, as the week of holiday parties begins, the social events that are never quite work but not close to play either.
I thought about this when I read a hilarious article in BBC news about S.O.’s and Christmas Parties the same day that my work announced our office Christmas party. Dodging one party is fine, but we are having not one but three separate events. These three different parties range in relaxation from the casual White Elephant gift exchange to the Departmental Party to the full blown Scientific Vendor and Company supported (networking encouraged) catered affair. At first, I was not even aware there was such a hubbub about Christmas here, because last year I quietly flew away back to California amidst the snow, while the majority of others continued going to lab even on Christmas. There was a general assumption there that no one should let the holidays interfere with their work, otherwise nothing would get done. Here, even though I reside in the same city, the atmosphere is all celebration. Just as gradually as lights and Santa figures appeared on houses one by one, decorations and hints of the holiday season swept the office, beginning with window paintings (Merry Christmas written in lights as a mouse in a Santa hat plugs them in) and culminating in the announcement of the first lab Christmas party, a Yankee Swap. Yes, and by Yankee Swap I really mean White Elephant, although I suppose both terms are equally ridiculous. I never heard the term Yankee Swap until I came to New England, and when I say White Elephant they all say that’s just a California thing. I disagreed, and was vindicated when I Wikipedia-ed “Yankee Swap” and was redirected to the page titled “White Elephant,” although I have since heard that one of my coworkers edited the page for revenge. And while it is made clear that this small swap Christmas party is a lab-only affair, the other office parties are not so exclusive, and everyone wrestles with the idea of who to bring, and how they will fit in with the tightly knit lab group.
Some people are more secretive than others about their personal life, deeming it inappropriate, and there is a definite understanding about who can be open and who can’t. Everyone without a steady partner keeps it under wraps, while all those married or in a long relationship have acquainted their husbands/wives/or SO’s with the rest of the lab. These long term partners are welcomed and encouraged, but when it comes to lab parties there is nothing stranger than bringing someone who has never met the lab. This represents another strange merging of work and personal life- because while Christmas is associated with family, somehow the season forces work to morph into one big exclusive family, in order to accommodate the holiday spirit.
Unfortunately I have to wrestle with being the SO and bringing the SO, both very difficult tasks when neither person knows the “shop talk” or the inner workings of the other’s work schedule. Talking about the weather only works for so long, so the solution I think is simple. The bigger the Christmas party, the more acceptable it is to bring your SO along. The more intimate the affair, the less awkward it will be to stick with work collegues. In case of the large Christmas party, such as the Vendor fair’s catered networking party, you and your SO can stand united against the other unknown parties that you’d rather not speak to anyway. Also, when you only have two drink tickets, tag teaming it can work like a charm. Not only that, but the bigger the party crowd, the easier it will be to slip out early in case the company is dull or the food is bad. And so, I approach the holiday season with gusto as my newly formulated plan will hopefully subvert all awkwardness, at least during the coming week.
Next week of course the problems change…there will be relatives.