Throughout my corporate career, the most unsettling experiences for me were “drinks before dinner” at leadership offsites.
Dusk, the sprawling green lawn awash with humid, salty, and metallic South China Sea air. Subdued house music, flickering candle lights, the scene was set.
There must have been 200 of us. We all had something in our hand. Wine glasses mostly. I had a glass of soda water with a plastic straw.
Rounded bar tables scattered around the lawn. Somehow we knew the core of this Squid Game was to figure out which tables to hang out at. Not all tables were equal.
The table where the big bosses stood? Nah. I always ended up laughing to their jokes 6 milliseconds late. Plus, they never knew what to make of me. I just stood there with my rigid smiles and soda water, incessantly plotting my graceful and nondescript exit.
I never knew how to react to the bosses’ comments and questions.
“What a great meeting!”
“How is everyone?”
“How do you like this place?”
Worst, I could never figure out what questions would be appropriate, “Do you have a room or a suite?”
I never found comfort in these gatherings. I guess expecting comfort from these “drinks before dinner” was precisely the mistake. Perhaps we were supposed to be competing and jockeying. Perhaps these were games to reshuffle pecking order, to leave an impression, so big boss would remember me when my name showed up in the “high po” list.
Then I became the big boss. It was my turn to host drinks before dinner. I vowed to do everything I could to make these activities less painful.
I asked bartenders to put soda water and juices welcomingly on the counter. I decided to be the one hopping amongst groups instead of them coming to me. I even came up with a go-to-line so I could hop from group to group. “Ok folks, I need to hop to another group and scare your other teammates.” (Delayed laughters always followed.)
Eventually, I found the most successful tactic.
Before a “drinks before dinner” gathering, I would always kick it off with a seated presentation. I would be up on stage, sipping soda water from a straw, as they entered into the area. I would then tell them a story, a story about a night where I had to figure out what drinks to hold in my hand, which tables to hang out at, and which smile to wear. I would admit to them how much of an introvert I was, and how anxious I was for what’s next. I asked them to forgive me if I decided to excuse myself in the middle of a conversation. “It’s not you. It’s me.” I reassured them.
Then we would end the presentation, herd ourselves into the open area awash with twilight and ocean breeze, and let the games began.