It’s that time of year again. We gather together to mark the end of one year, the beginning of another, or maybe a little of both. We might do so with or without masks, and we might even do it – groan – virtually. In some cases, gifts will be exchanged. They can be thoughtful, they can be hilarious, or they can even a little of both (if you’ve ever purposely brought the worst gift to a holiday white elephant exchange, you know what I’m talking about).

Holiday parties are a wonderful way to get everyone together for a dose of holiday team building, for the boss to acknowledge everyone’s contributions, and maybe do a bit of goal setting for the year ahead. Under the right conditions, a holiday party is an effective way to build the sense of team that underpins a high-performing organization or brings together family and friends in a meaningful way. But when conditions run awry, anything can happen. And none of it is good.


Everybody’s got a story. The drunk uncle is a cliché, but there’s no doubt that it’s probably rooted in truth. We all know someone who walked into a holiday party with the best of intentions, maybe had one drink too many, and ended up entering the realm of urban myth. They finally stood up to that guy. They broke out into an Elaine dance in front of everyone. They aired their grievances to their family. The next morning, they awoke to a phone full of text messages that all shared one phrase in common: “Oh, no, you didn’t.”

Oh, yes, you did.

Three decades after it happened, I still tell the cautionary tell of the most epic holiday party mistake I ever saw. A Thanksgiving meal with my leadership team, when one member had a little too much to drink, ate an entire candied ham, threw it up, then passed out on the dining room table. From that day forward, he was referred to by the others as Hambone, a nickname that stuck with him until the day he left.

If you haven’t done something regrettable at a holiday party, consider yourself lucky or boring. Both are good. If you have, you’re not alone. One in three people admit to committing a holiday party faux pas. It happens. As long as you don’t lose your job or find yourself persona non grata among your colleagues, family, or friends, you’ll be okay.


There are holiday party mistakes and there are holiday party mistakes. Bringing a meat tray to a party hosted by a vegan is innocuous enough. So is burning scented candles when one of your guests suffers from asthma. Those are relatively minor faux pax that can be apologized away without major incident. Then there are those other kinds of mistakes. The ones that follow you around like toilet paper stuck to your shoe. The kind that no one ever forgets.

Where to begin? That’s always the question. Let’s start from the top, where most of what follows starts. This is my list of don’ts for holiday party gatherings:

1. Drink too much.

I always set a non-negotiable two-drink limit for myself at any function. A third drink tends to lead to a fourth, and so on. And once those inhibitions start to drop, all hell breaks loose. If you absolutely have to do shots with your buddies, just be prepared for what follows. Hint: it ain’t good.

2. Speak your mind.

We all have things we want to say. If you have to summon some liquid courage to do so, don’t. What comes out won’t help you in any way. If you find yourself with a wine glass and a spoon standing in front of the room, put them both down. What you were going to say will hurt you. Trust me on this.

3. Kiss anyone.

I used to think there were exceptions to this, with spouses, for example. But I’ve seen some pretty graphic public displays of affection at holiday parties that led me to believe that it’s best to just keep your lips (and your hands) to yourself.

4. Gossip

If loose lips sink ships, then choosing a holiday get together to tell people that someone might be embezzling from the company will take down the entire fleet. Don’t gossip at a party. Ever.

5. Sing or dance.

I don’t care how nice a voice your significant other tells you that you have, or if they say you move like Jagger. They’re lying. No one came to this party to hear or see you do either. This isn’t a Nike commercial. Just don’t do it.

6. Debate politics or religion.

In my family, someone would always decide that Thanksgiving dinner was the place to talk politics (or religion). That inevitably led to arguments, hurt feelings, and a no dessert. I like pie more than politics. Leave that at home.

7. Man up on anyone.

Festivus is a time for feats of strength. Not the annual holiday party. I get it, you feel good about yourself. You spent the pandemic lifting weights and drinking protein shakes. Don’t feel obligated to bench press the couches or fight the guy from accounting. Tone down the testosterone and have fun. But not too much.

8. Knock things over.

There’s a klutz at every party. They bump into people, spill things, and knock things over. The first two are annoying. The last one can be a problem. Also… the furniture is not your personal Romper Room. If you feel compelled to stand or even dance on the furniture, don’t. Leave.

9. End up in the hospital.

Nothing puts a damper on a holiday party quite like an ambulance crew. I have a close relative who likes to drink and also happens to use a prescription painkiller. Put those two together and bad things happen. Put those things together at a holiday party and it ruins it for everyone.

10. Get arrested.

If you’ve had someone get arrested during a holiday party. I’m not talking about the occasional DUI, either. I’m talking about the person who decides to bring a gun out at a party. “It’s not loaded” are three words you never want to hear when someone is getting ready to propose a toast. That won’t end well for anyone.

When in Doubt…

A final thought. If you’re worried that you might be tempted to do something at a holiday party that you would regret later, plan to make an obligatory appearance and early exit. Or skip it altogether… with an appropriate RSVP, of course. While this might violate some social conventions, doing so is far better than overstaying your welcome and becoming the office legend for all the wrong reasons.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.