“Mmm…this cake sure is good….”

Stimulating conversation, right? awkward office partiesIf you’ve ever worked in a “real” office, you’ve likely sat through your fair share of awkward cake parties.

We humans are social creatures. And, as such, we like to party – even at work. Each year when your birthday rolls around, you know that it’s time for you to be the spotlight at a very awkward office party. (Of course, those of us who freelance or work from home don’t have to deal with these types of conundrums).

This article is for all my friends in corporate America.

Why Office Cake Parties are So Awkward

Sure, you see your co-workers every single day. Bob in Accounting seems like a nice guy. Janet in HR is always overly friendly. Ralph over in IT rarely acknowledges your presence. It’s a rare occasion that you get far beyond the exchange of pleasantries with most of your colleagues.

So, what could be better than sharing a chocolate cake with all of these personalities? How about blowing your nose with sandpaper.

Think about all of the times you have shared a cake with a group of individuals. Birthdays, baptisms, wedding anniversaries, and graduation parties are some of the more frequent cake-worthy moments. In other words, cakes are normally shared by people who are deeply connected to one another – not colleagues you barely know.

So, how do you deal with these situations? Here are a few ideas.

1. Stockpile Stories About Your Kids

When in doubt, talking about your kids is usually a wise choice. Most people have kids or know other people who have them, so it’s something that many of your colleagues will find somewhat interesting. Sharing something cute or funny lightens the mood; it also makes other co-workers feel like they can share their own stories.

Just be careful about the details you share. People don’t want to hear you brag about how “advanced” little Tommy is for his age.

2. Develop a Cake Party Strategy

You know who will likely be at the party. Why not develop a few “go to” questions for when the crickets start chirping. Just be careful to follow the chain of command and be sure to avoid “dangerous topics” (see tip #4 below).

Here are a few ideas:

  • To your boss: “How were your flights during your recent trip to Boston?”
  • To your boss’ administrative assistant: “Are there any big surprises planned for this year’s company picnic?”
  • To that guy in IT who doesn’t like you: “Mac or PC?” (Just kidding – you know he’s going to say PC).

3. Plan Out a Few “Cake Segues”

It might also be a good idea to think of a few “cake segues” to keep in your back pocket, such as:

  • “This cake is so moist – it reminds me of the ones my mother made for me back when we were stationed at the Naval base in Germany….”
  • “I see this cake came from Sam’s Club. You know, our kids love to go to Sam’s on Saturday mornings to try all the free samples…”
  • “I was recently reading an article about how cake came into existence. It’s actually a fascinating story,….”

4. Avoid Dangerous Topics

It goes without saying that you should never discuss the following during a cake party:

  • Office scandals, romances, or rumors
  • Inside jokes or recent events that most people won’t relate to
  • Recent staffing changes
  • Politics and religion
  • Things that you really dislike
  • Personal health facts
  • Things you did in college

I would also argue that most business-related topics are off limits, too. People get uncomfortable talking about the inner workings of a company at casual events. If your boss or your boss’ boss brings up business, then that’s fine. You, however, shouldn’t go down that road on your own.

5. When All Else Fails, Talk About the Cake

If none of the other ideas work, you can always go back to the cake. That’s the one thing you can be certain is common to everyone at the party.

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Matt Keener is the original "Executive in Sweatpants," having built a successful online consulting business (from home). His best-selling book offers tips for capitalizing on outsourcing and freelancing. Matt holds an MBA and has been featured by many recognizable brands, including Upwork (formerly oDesk), Elance, Insightly, the Dave Ramsey Show, and Entrepreneur.com.

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