The holidays mean get-togethers, both official office parties and unofficial friendly gatherings. These get-togethers are a chance to unwind, relax after a stressful year, and mark everyone's hard work over the past twelve months. Not every company has an office party, but you may find yourself at your spouse's or going along with a friend to theirs. Instead of being a wallflower or hanging out by the dessert table all night rather than speak to people you don't know, try breaking out of your shell. This might be particularly useful if you're under- or unemployed and looking for a new opportunity. The person sitting at your table could be hiring manager and looking to fill a position, and how would you know unless you start talking to them?

I'm reading this as I type, and I don't want to sound like a hypocrite because I'm the first to admit that socializing (or "networking" as it's called in the business world) with total strangers isn't too high on my list of favorite activities. I consider myself to be a friendly person once you get to know me, but I admit that it can take a little time for me to open up. I've gotten better with it over the years, but I would still much rather talk to someone I know. I think most people feel the same way. Some people are just naturally bubbly and will talk to anyone; others are more reserved. The key is to strike up a conversation but know when to move on if it seems like the person you're talking to is really not interested in chatting.

Over the course of my last few jobs, I've gone to enough professional networking events to have picked up a few tips that I'm happy to share. Also, proper etiquette should always be used, especially if you're attending as a representative of your company. Read on for a few helpful hints that I've learned along the way:

Nametags. Unfortunately, nametags are a necessary evil at many business events. I know what you're thinking. Yes they're annoying, they stick to everything but what they're supposed to, or they fall off altogether. There's not much I can do about that, I'm sorry to say, but just do the best you can with it. Nametags should be worn on the right hand side of your chest. Why, you ask? I was at a seminar a few years ago and someone told me that when a person is shaking your (right) hand, it's easier for the eye to go immediately to your nametag since that should be on the same side of your body. Try it sometime and see if I'm right.

Handshake. People are more uneasy than ever about shaking hands thanks to the swine flu. Though there's no law that says you must shake someone's hand when you first meet them, common courtesy dictates that you should do it. Keep some antibacterial liquid handy and apply it as soon as the introductions are over. Go for a firm handshake, but not so tight, the other person feels that they're stuck in a vise. A proper handshake is when the "pads" (that skin between your thumb and index finger) of each person's hands connect. And always look the other person in the eye so that it looks as though you really are glad to meet them.

Next is the small talk, which is often the hardest part for us reserved types. "What do you do?" is a standard conversation starter. If you're currently looking, be up front about it. As I said, you never know where your next opportunity might come from, and the person you're talking to might know of an opening. Stick to other safe topics like family and hobbies. You may not have found a lifelong friend, but connections are connections.

Go easy on the free food. Most of these events include food of some kind, usually appetizers and other finger foods. It's tempting to make a meal out of it, but go easy. Take a few items, but don't fill the plate. Sample a few others the next time the tray comes around (or make another trip through the serving line), but don't go overboard.

Same goes with drinks. There's nothing worse than being "that guy/girl at the Christmas party" who had a little too much and was either out of control, got sick, or both. Have a glass or two, but know your limits. Keep in mind that the other people at this party are either your co-workers, your spouse or friend's co-workers, or your future co-workers, and you just don't want to risk leaving a bad impression on any of them.

Have business cards handy. Just in case there's to be some follow-up contact later.

Enjoy yourself. You are at a party, after all. Loosen up a little, talk to people, and have a good time!