The scientific explanation for those mortifying moments at the annual company soirée

By Kaitlin Menza
December 14, 2015

You spend all year cultivating your image at work-arriving on time, being prepared for meetings, getting sh*t done. Then, all that effort is undone after drinking two glasses of champagne, when you accidentally tell your boss that you have a crush on that guy in IT. Most anyone who's received a paycheck has an anecdote about a coworker who went too far at the office holiday party. So what makes this fête such a powder keg?

Yes, alcohol lowers your inhibitions. But does it change who you really are, or simply reveal the real you? George Koob, Ph.D, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, has spent his career researching how alcohol impacts our emotional systems-and he has some light to shed on why that one administrative assistant is the first to dance on a table come December. (And this infographic shows The Body-Altering Affects of Alcohol.)

"Alcohol causes dis-inhibition, which is why people like it for cocktail parties," Koob says. "It loosen the tongue, it lessens social anxiety. As you keep drinking, that inhibition gets larger and larger." That's the fun part of drinking around your coworkers: Suddenly you have something to say to that middle-aged woman in accounting.

At the same time, your office is probably the place in your life where you have to keep your emotions strictly in check. So add one shot of tequila, and your boundaries begin to disssolve. "You're an emotional liability, we call it," Koob says. Once you've moved past moderate drinking and into binge drinking-so, around two drinks per hour for a woman-"you no longer have control over your emotional systems."

Lack of emotional filter, check. And once you're in binge territory, your impulsivity is affected as well. So maybe something that you've always felt strongly about falls out of your mouth, like you complain about your boss' annoying significant other as soon as she walks out of the room. Whoops!

You can blame it on the alcohol, à la Jamie Foxx song circa 2009, but you might also wonder if the alcohol is actually revealing what gossipy mean girls your coworkers really are. When it comes to figuring out why you're a nasty drunk versus a bubbly one, "there's not a lot of science around it," Koob admits. (But you might want to brush up on the Four Drunk Personality Types, According to Science.) "[Sudden nastiness] suggests that there are issues the person isn't consciously aware of that aren't resolved." A seemingly nice person who suddenly becomes cruel when she drinks might indeed be burying that anger and bitterness below the surface. A few sips of alcohol in a strange situation-like by the copy machine-may be enough to burst open that side of someone.

Of course, the month of December is often a key part of the problem as well. "The holidays in general are an emotional period of time," Koob says. "Most people enjoy [them], but they bring up old memories. People drink to blot out those painful memories."

So you may want to forgive your coworkers (or, cough, family members) if they get a little snippy around the punch bowl. And if you want to avoid losing control of your emotional systems, follow the rules you learned in college health class, like drinking a glass of water with every cocktail and eating enough. That way, you'll enjoy the party-without being the one everyone whispers about into the new year.


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