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S1E36: The Dreaded Office Holiday Party, part 1

The dreaded office holiday party: For many of us, for MANY reasons, this is a situation fraught with difficulties. To go or not to go. To eat or not to eat. To discuss or not to discuss our religious/holiday/personal lives and plans. As IT folks with a strong religious/moral/ethical POV, navigating this ONE (supposedly optional) yearly occurrence can be the cause of more stress than any other event. In this episode we’ll unpack the what and why, and – like the IT pros we are, offer advice on how to navigate through this seasonal obstacle course. Listen or read the transcript below.

Dez: 00:00 Welcome to our podcast where we talk about the interesting, frustrating and inspiring experiences we have as people with strongly held religious views working in corporate IT. We’re not here to preach or teach you our religion. We’re here to explore ways we make our career as IT professionals mesh – or at least not conflict – with our religious life. This is Technically Religious.

Leon: 00:24 The dreaded office holiday party. For many of us, For many reasons. This situation is fraught with difficulties. To go or not to go? To eat or not to eat? To discuss or not to discuss our religious, holiday, or personal lives and plans? As IT folks with a strong religious, moral and ethical point of view, navigating this one (supposedly optional) yearly occurrence can be the cause of more stress than any other event. In this episode, we’ll unpack the what and the why, and – like the IT pros we are – offer advice on how to navigate through this seasonal obstacle course. I’m Leon Adato, and the other voices you’re going to hear on this episode are my partners in podcasting crime. Josh Biggley.

Josh: 01:05 Hello, hello.

Leon: 01:06 And perennial guest voice. Yechiel Kalmenson.

Yechiel: 01:09 Always a pleasure.

Leon: 01:10 All right. As has become our habit, let’s go ahead and do some shameless self promotion. Um, Yechiel as, as still the nominal guest, you know, you’ve been on this, I think this is your fourth episode, but we’ll still call you a guest. We’ll treat you with respect like a guest. Go ahead and start off and tell us about yourself.

Yechiel: 01:28 All right. Uh, so I’m Yechiel Kalmenson. I’m a software engineer at Pivotal though by the time this episode drops, we’ll probably be VMWare already, um, you can find me on Twitter @YechielK, my blog is RabbiOnRails.IO and I identify as an Orthodox Jew.

Josh: 01:43 Great. Josh, how about you? All right. I’m Josh Biggley. I’m a tech op strategy consultant with New Relic. You can find me on the Twitters at, @Jbiggley. I have no blog or really no presence on, on any sort of a non social media platform. I am also not on Facebook, so I’ll look for me. I’m, you can find me. I’m hanging out with the post-Mormons and with the ex-Mormons nowadays and that’s my religious identification.

Leon: 02:09 All right. And I’ll finish off this section. I’m Leon Adato. I’m a Head Geek for SolarWinds. You can find me on the Twitters @LeonAdato. I pontificate about things technical and religious at And I also identify as an Orthodox Jew. So before we dig into, uh, the things that we are talking about, I wanna clarify what we’re not talking about because there are things that everyone kind of dreads about the office holiday party, um, that are not gonna be part of this conversation. And you know what I mean is, for example, this mentality of ‘what happens at the office party stays at the office party’, you know, you know, party it up. We’re just gonna forget about it tomorrow. We’re not going to talk about it. Like, I think a lot of us dread that, but that’s not specific to us. What are some other things that are just sort of common to any office party or anybody’s dread of that?

Yechiel: 02:59 Well, for me, as an introvert, parties in general are a drag. Um, I can’t stand them. If I can spend the night at home, why would I spend it with a bunch of people I don’t want to spend time with anyway? So, but that’s all introverts are like me, so….

Leon: 03:14 Right. Okay. So yeah, definitely if you are of the quiet, quieter type ramping up for this is um, a challenge. Okay. What else?

Josh: 03:22 I mean, I really struggle with the, ‘you have to show up’ mentality for really for any corporate event. If I don’t want to be there or I choose not to be there because I have other priorities, don’t make me attend. So Christmas parties, holiday parties, you know, new year’s parties, just if I want to be there, I’ll be there. If not, don’t take offense that I don’t, that I don’t want to be there. I mean, I didn’t marry you. I’m married, my wife.

Leon: 03:50 And, and I think closely related to that is that that this time of year, you know, the holidays, Christmas, whatever, you know, new year’s is a challenge for a lot of people for a lot of reasons. It stirs up a lot of emotions and not all of them are positive. And I think that an office holiday party where you feel like there’s an expectation to put on a particular kind of attitude or face is also challenging for a lot of folks. Um, and also I think that, uh, having to constantly explain yourself about why not drinking or not eating or not whatever, again, this time of year is challenging for a lot of folks on, on that physical level of how they interact with, you know, food and drink and things like that. And that can also create a lot of stress. But that’s not what we’re focusing on here. We’re looking at the things that are specific to having a strong religious, ethical or moral point of view. Um, so I wanna I wanna dovetail into that and I want to say that those strong emotions that I just mentioned. You know, that this time of year can have very strong positive emotions for people about family, about memories, about their religion, and you layer onto that the expectations of a party because it’s being hosted, it’s being organized, it’s being, it’s meant to be “bigger and better than last years or ever before!” And all that stuff that creates a scenario where people can take offense to things in a lot of different ways. And those of us who have religious boundaries can unexpectedly encounter those, you know, those offense triggers in ways that don’t happen on a normal day. So again, let’s, let’s talk about what are those things, what are things that we’ve either tripped over, we know exist about the holiday party for us.

Yechiel: 05:44 So food is obviously a big one. Um, and you know, there’s a different kosher, halal, whether you are a vegetarian, whatever you are. Um, and I think it’s even worse when, when someone will, will go through the effort to try to make you feel comfortable and they’ll order or something which they think is acceptable to you. So they’ll Google and find the nearest kosher restaurant. But just because the restaurant identifies as kosher online doesn’t mean it’s actually kosher. And then it’s not just, you know, if they didn’t order anything and I didn’t eat nobody would notice. But here “I ordered this, especially for you here, you know, have some, it’s just for you.” And then I have to explain that kosher is not always kosher.

Leon: 06:25 Right? The one I hear a lot is, but “it said it was a kosher deli.” I know kosher was in the name. Kosher style is a thing.

Yechiel: 06:33 It’s bagels and lox. How much more kosher can you get than that?

Josh: 06:36 Right? Well, yeah, I was going to say that, um, you know, growing up Mormon, the awkward part was, were really, it was the alcohol thing. Festivities and alcohol go hand in hand together. Um, so I remember, especially as a teenager going to parties and people being like, Oh look, I bought you a near beer. Or there’s this great debate in the Mormon community,

Leon: 07:03 What are they think… Do they hate you?

Josh: 07:08 Uh, may, maybe. Uh, but then there’s this whole, this whole debate going on in the Mormon community around a sparkling Apple cider, uh, for your new year’s Eve celebrations. Like, do you want to have champagne or do you just want to look like you’re having champagne? And then if you’re looking like you’re having a champagne, are you giving the very appearance of evil? And I’m like, Oh my goodness, it’s just so complex. Uh, and, and then you have, that’s within your own family. You take those same conversations and have them at an office party, aaarrrrggghhhh. So much harder.

Leon: 07:46 The other thing that, that we’re hitting on is also there’s a level of trust or mistrust and there’s sort of, you know, as a religious person, there’s a healthy level of skepticism I have to have about the food around me and about the people presenting it. Not because I think that they are inherently untrustworthy, but they are inherently not, not necessarily knowledgeable. So for example, a few episodes ago we talked about at conventions and, um, Al Rasheed talked about how, you know, people will say, “Oh yeah, there’s, there’s nothing in here. There’s no, you know, there’s no wine.” And then you find out that it was sauteed in wine. But because the wine was burned off, that person felt that there was no alcohol in it. And so it was fine. And so there’s no way to ask in a way that isn’t either an FBI interrogation or really offensively skeptical to find out about, uh, even the vegetables. Like, okay, so did you cut these with a completely new knife or were you cutting bacon right before you cut, you know, the celery, because that would be a prob…. Like I can’t, I can’t trust that and nor can I ask enough questions to get to the heart of it kind of thing.

Josh: 08:57 Who does that? That’s just unsanitary.

Yechiel: 08:59 But the vegetables are always on a cheese platter, so that pretty much cuts it.

Leon: 09:04 Right. That’s a, that’s a, yeah, there’s a problem right there. Um, I was at a, uh, office…] At an office party at a manager’s house and they were doing some sort of game, icebreaker, whatever. And the prize that they would hand out is this, you know, little holiday chocolates and, they handed it, to me, and you know, I was just being a good sport and I, you know, took, and I said, “Oh wow.” You know, I’m looking for the hechsher. I’m looking for the symbol that would tell me if it was kosher. And I actually said, “…which would be ironic since it’s, you know, in the shape of a Santa Claus.” If it was. There are, by the way, chocolate that is in the shape of a Santa Claus that is completely kosher. It’s fine. So I was just sort of amused by it, but immediately the wife of the manager was so earnest, she says, “Oh, well take this one isn’t the shape of a snowman. That must be kosher!” Like that. That’s not how that works. But now I’m in a position where I have to, you can’t laugh at the boss’s wife. I know that. But she said something that was kind of ignorant and now I either have to laugh along with it, just go along with it. Or you know, there’s, there’s almost no winning in that one.

Josh: 10:10 I mean, from on the other side of that, as, as someone who for many years has hosted a Christmas party in my home. Um, last year we didn’t host one. And this year there’s, we’ve had people ask, “Hey, are you having, you know, your Christmas get together?” Cause that’s a, that’s a big deal, right? It’s an open house. We invite all our friends and uh, you know, people from our, our former congregation, uh, and our neighbors. And so this year we’re, we’re not, uh, we’ve decided we’re not, we’re going to have a few select people over small gathering. But as someone who hosts, you also have to realize that you’re going to do things that are awkward at whatever gathering you have. Um, and you just have to learn to not take offense. I don’t know. Ah, th and this is why office parties are so different than parties in someone’s home with people you don’t work with because your friends, You can, you can say things like, “Hey, Josh, um, no, a snowman isn’t kosher. And let me explain why…” And I’m going to be, I’m going to be paying rapt attention. “Oh really? Oh, I get it. Oh, that’s cool.” Whereas your boss’s wife may not be so interested in getting the, you know, the religious lecture or lesson or however they interpret it.

Leon: 11:32 There’s other things that I think aren’t necessarily on people’s radar. Like, you know, music is another one. You know the number of times where people like, Oh, I just love this. Don’t you just love this song? It’s like, “Swear to God, I’ve never heard this song. Never. You know, and no, I don’t want to sing along to it.” And you know, even trying to, so in Judaism there’s a thing about men not supposed to listen to the live voices of a woman singing in the same room kind of thing. Like there’s just, you know, it’s one of those things that’s considered, you know, for modesty and for, you know, just keeping things a little bit separate. But how are you gonna explain that again to the boss’s wife? Like, please don’t sing the song that you love that I’ve never heard.

Yechiel: 12:16 Any event that includes karaoke is an automatic “Nope.” for me.

Leon: 12:21 There we go. Okay.

Josh: 12:22 Stay out of the Philippines, Yechiel. Stay out of the Philippines. Yeah, they love karaoke. Uh, so I guess that means that, uh, me singing “Dominic, the Italian Christmas Donkey” is completely out.

Leon: 12:35 Okay. That song is horrible on so many levels that, uh, I just, yeah, don’t ever that, that one’s not okay. Um, for reasons that are not religious or it’s just, it’s just bad. It’s just offensive. So last… One of our previous episodes recently, um, Cory Adler was talking about, uh, a coworker who started at the company and they were sort of delighted… He was… the coworker was Muslim. Corey is also Orthodox Jewish and they were so delighted to find all the similarities. And one of the similarities they hit upon was at the Christmas party. This coworker brought his wife who was wearing a hijab and you know, the full Pakistani clothing and everything and everybody wanted to say hi and shake her hand and give her a hug and all these things. And she was just sort of shrinking through the evening. And Cory just came up and said hi to his coworker and just said hi to his wife. And afterward, his coworker said, “It was so nice to have you there. You were the only one who got it. You’re the only one who knew.” And, but you know, that story aside again, you know, these office parties where you’re meeting people’s significant others and there’s an expectation, and people are feeling festive and feeling friendly and perhaps feeling drunk and whatever. And you’re trying to manage boundaries. You know, for a whole lot of reasons. It makes the party a challenge.

Josh: 14:03 Can we talk about the, the, the Mormon, um, idea. And this is not just a holiday thing, but it’s, you know, so praying over meals is a thing. Uh, in, I think, most religions, um, but pre Mormons have this, this, uh, funny thing of, um, praying that food will, um, give us strength and nourishment regardless if you’re praying over, um, you know, a, a nice, uh, meal of, you know, quinoa and vegetables or if it happens to be, you know, jelly donuts and root beer, it’s always, you know, praying for, uh, strength and nourishment from this food. So for some people, whether you’re not religious out and just like prayers or you know, don’t like, uh, any sort of grace being said or if you are like me and you know, your, your ex-Mormon and it, it just makes you laugh when people are praying for this food to somehow be magically transformed to be nourishing for your body. It’s donuts. The only thing it’s good for is eating and enjoying.

Leon: 15:19 (laughing hysterically) I’m, I’m laughing because my, my daughter who runs a bakery out of my house is preparing to make something on the order of like 800 donuts in the next couple of weeks. And so the idea that my house will be filled with basically non,

Yechiel: 15:34 it’ll definitely nourish your gut, that’s for sure.

Leon: 15:36 It’s gonna. It’s, yeah.

Josh: 15:38 You just tell her to just pray over them that they will be for strength and nourishment and then they, there’ll be no calories left in them.

Leon: 15:46 Yeah. Yeah. The, the mythical and the mystical, uh, no calorie donut. Yeah, I don’t think so.

Josh: 15:54 Prayers are just weird. Just awkward. I mean, and then the reciprocal is also true. If you go to a meal and you have a religious belief where you want to pray over your food, but nobody else is what do you do?

Leon: 16:08 And there’s a piece of that which is, and I think we’ll get into it more, but Christmas is a time when a lot of Christians feel like this is when their Christianity should be the most on display. Like this is the time when they can really turn it, you know, turn it up to 11. And so getting everyone involved in a, in a prayer, a prayer which invokes imagery or names or concepts which are not only foreign to other religious cultures, but in some cases antithetical to other cultures. You know, so now do, do I stand quietly in the corner? Do I leave the room? Do I… No matter what I do, anything short of participating could be seen as offensive because this person has so much invested in this moment.

Josh: 16:57 Not that history has, uh, will support me on this. But I feel like the easiest way to do this is don’t be so invested in your religious beliefs that you, that you’re going to take offense when no offense is intended. Um, and I, that goes both ways. I grew up, my, my very best friend when I was a young, quite young, up until about fifth grade, and when I moved away, uh, he was, um, uh, Jehovah’s witness and you know, and I, this was back at least in Canada where you sang the national anthem and you said the Lord’s prayer every Sunday morning in school, right? Uh, so they, they look, we’re all adults here. If you need, if you want to step out because something is happening that you don’t want to partake in, step out. Just like if I show up at a holiday party and someone starts doing something that I find offensive, whether it’s you’ve, you’ve, uh, you know, you’ve drunk too much and now you are a drunk, um, or you know, uh, someone is doing something that I find inappropriate, I am going to leave. That’s I, and if I can come back, I will. But if not, I’m not going to come back and you’re just going to have to deal with that because you made your choices. I make mine. I mean, we’re all adults like that.

Leon: 18:18 Yeah. And, and the, the point I think of, of this particular conversation is navigating the heightened expectations and emotions around the holidays and around, you know, the, the party. I think that these moments, these particular moments become imbued with a heightened sense that, you know, isn’t there for a lot of other things or can be imbued with a heightened sense. And I think that’s the challenge.

Yechiel: 18:45 And then you have the corollary to that where, um, where people will try to be inclusive and they’ll be like, “Oh, okay. So, um, Yechiel, why didn’t you lead us with a Jewish prayer?” And I’m like, “no, I, that’s not what I want to do right now. I do not want to lead this room full of people on a Jewish prayer. I’ll say, my Jewish prayer myself, thank you very much.”

Leon: 19:08 Right? Right. Or, or my personal favorite. “Hey, can you bring them, can you bring, you know, that candelabra thing, can you bring a menorah? And, and light it at our party. And that way you’ll have something here too.” It’s like, um, “Hanukkah was three weeks ago. Chad,” You know, uh, no, we’re not doing it. But again, there’s, I’m not saying you can’t say no. Josh, to your point no is a perfectly fine answer. You know, Hanukkah was three weeks ago is also perfectly fine answer. The challenge is navigating other people’s expectations and again, I think, uh, the holidays just sort of amp things up.

Josh: 19:49 I, I definitely agree. I th I hope that… No, before we end this, we definitely have to come, we have to come up with that list of things that we need to do, like the ground rules we need to set. Right. And one of them definitely needs to be, “I am not going to take a fence unless you intend to offend me.”

Leon: 20:07 Right? If you say, “Yeah, I meant for you to be offended, then then all bets are off, right?

Josh: 20:12 Yeah. All bets are off.

Yechiel: 20:12 And when in doubt, just ask, you know, “Did you mean to offend me?

New Speaker: 20:15 Yeah. That’s, you know, I’m having a hard time with it, right? Oh, there’s all sorts of mature, you know, careful communication that we could do every day in the office, in fact, that would be very helpful. Um, and this is just another opportunity to practice that, but, well, okay, we’ll get to that because as good IT professionals, we are into solving things. We’ll do it. The last piece, and I’m just gonna echo something. So Doug Johnson – who’s another frequent voice that we hear on Technically Religious – and I have known each other for probably close to 30 years now. And Doug has been on this program saying as an evangelical Christian how much he hates Christmas. He is, he is like the worst representative of Christmas. And he, and a lot of it boils down to everything we’ve been talking about, but the flip side of it. Christmas isn’t Christmasy enough for him. Meaning what the holiday party, what the office holiday party is, this watered down, commercialized hallmark version. And he wants nothing to do with it. He really, you know, his point, and he said this before, is, is “You want to have Christmas? Let’s talk Jesus. Like let’s just do that!” That’s, you know, let’s get rid of the guy in the red suit. Let’s forget about all that stuff. He really wants to have the, the adult version of the holiday, which also makes people very uncomfortable. And so he finds himself not invited to Christmas parties frequently as well.

Josh: 21:38 I think that this ties very nicely into, um, an idea that we wanted to talk around that this, uh, my religion, uh, on your holiday or you know, your holiday on my religion.

Leon: 21:49 Yeah.

Josh: 21:50 So up until a few years ago, I was one of those people where if you said “Happy holidays” to me, I would say “Merry Christmas” back because you know, it’s Christmas time and you got to put the Christ in Christmas. Right? And my wife and I were talking about this just the other day. Yesterday, I think. And we have decided that regardless of what holiday, someone wishes us, our response is going to be, “Thank you. You too.” I mean, Holy crap, right? It’s like mind blowing!

Yechiel: 22:27 Radical.

Leon: 22:29 What a crazy idea. Just saying thank you.

Speaker 4: 22:33 It. Ah, and she, she said, “I posted this to Facebook, that I’m going to do this.” And she’s like, “I wonder how many people are going to be offended.” And I thought, “Who in the world’s going to be offended by saying thank you. You too.”?

Leon: 22:46 Okay. And, and the answer is??

Yechiel: 22:49 Well, it’s this Facebook, so…

: 22:50 (conversation fades out)

Leon: 22:52 We know you can’t listen to our podcast all day. So out of respect for your time, we’ve broken this particular conversation up. Come back next week and we’ll continue our conversation.

Roddie: 23:02 Thank you for making time for us this week. To hear more of Technically Religious visit our website at where you can find our other episodes, leave us ideas for future discussions or connect with us on social media.

Leon: 23:15 Hey, Josh, how was the last Christmas party you attended?

Josh: 23:17 I passed through the seven levels of the candy cane forest, through the sea of swirly twirly gumdrops, and then I walked through the Lincoln tunnel!

Yechiel: 23:26 Wait, is there sugar in gumdrops?

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