Dear Adam Smith: The Company Party
"Mr. New Employee" has some concerns about the upcoming company party.
Can Adam Smith help???
Can Adam Smith help???
Dear Mr. Smith,
I recently started a new job and will be joining my colleagues next weekend for a company party. I’m a little nervous. Do you have any advice on what to do? I’d like to make a good impression.
Mr. New Employee
Dear Mr. New Employee:
Congratulations on your new job! It’s appropriate that you will get to know your colleagues personally as well as professionally. At the same time, it’s natural to wonder how you will fit with this new group. I sympathize. Having worked at two universities and joined a number of clubs, I know that each group has its own dynamic. Fortunately, there are universal principles that will help you through it.
First, be yourself. As I advised students in my Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, each person has a unique style, whether gay or grave. There is no single style that is agreeable. As in writing, the key is
that one should stick to his natural character: a gay man should not endeavor to be grave nor the grave man to be gay, but each should regulate that character and manner that is natural to him and hinder it from running into that vicious extreme to which he is most inclined. (Lecture 8)
So if you tend to be a bit somber or absent-minded, that’s fine. I myself occasionally lost track of the conversation at the Poker Club, with no one the wiser (well, almost no one). Just refrain from quoting whining moralists like James Thomson. “Welcome kindred Glooms!” is not the way to launch festivities, even if it is winter.
Second, even if you are not in the party spirit, you can draw upon previous incidents in gauging appropriate behavior. For instance, as I explain in The Theory of Moral Sentiments,
We may often approve of a jest, though we ourselves do not laugh, because, perhaps, we are in a grave humour, or happen to have our attention engaged with other objects. We have learned, however, from experience, what sort of pleasantry is upon most occasions capable of making us laugh, and we observe that this is one of that kind. (TMS I.i.3.3)
So you’ll approve of the laughter because you know that it is natural and that normally, you’d join in it.
Third, be alert to the posturing that often appears at parties. A senior colleague might fairly vibrate with pride, displaying a sense of superiority “not so much to excite your esteem for himself, as to mortify that for yourself” (TMS VI.iii.35). Other colleagues might seem more eager for you to admire their merits, perhaps flattering you in the hope that you will overlook their flaws. Such pride and vanity are common foibles that often disguise good qualities, as I explain in The Theory or Moral Sentiments. The key is maintain your own composure and avoid similar errors yourself.
I wish you joy in your new position and with your new colleagues.
Yours in fellow-feeling,
Editor's Note: Letters to the "Dear Adam Smith" column are not, of course answered by Adam Smith. He died in 1790. Letters are answered by Sarah Skwire, Caroline Breashears, and Janet Bufton. Advice is for the purposes of amusement and education about Smith's thought. We do our best, but caveat emptor and follow our advice at your own risk.