Festive frenzy, be gone

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 22, 2013

November and December are usually associated with holidays and festivities. But the holiday season can bring its own set of stresses.

Planning the perfect dinner party, taking the extended family on vacation, doing Christmas shopping and dealing with unmet resolutions are familiar scenarios which can take their toll on even the most spirited of partygoers.

Life!Weekend talks to etiquette consultants,

life coaches, party planners, tour agents, human resource consultants and dietitians for tips on how to handle such situations for a stress-free season.


Indulging your sweet tooth could make you heavier by half a kilogram within a week.

By consuming an extra 500 calories a day - anything from 2-1/2 pieces of eclair, or a slice of fruit cake and a slice of log cake - you can gain half a kilogram within a week, says dietitian Estonie Yuen of the National Healthcare Group Polyclinics.

"Many festive treats are high in sugar and fat and some can even contain the amount of calories similar to a small meal," she says.

To stay healthy but still add the festive kick to your dishes, play with colours rather than focus on calorie-laden festive foods.

For example, senior dietitian Catherine Koh at the National University Hospital suggests a festive three-bean salad with red from kidney beans, capsicums and tomatoes mixed with green from French beans, asparagus, romaine lettuce or green apple slivers. Then add a dash of orange from orange wedges or pumpkin, and yellow from sweet corn kernels and yellow capsicums.

When offered a sweetened drink, always dilute it, says Ms Koh. Aim for ½ a cup of water with ½ a cup of sweetened drink, she says.

Also, pick a salad or any vegetable to start your meal - aiming for at least a cupful - so that it fills you up, she adds.

Some diet myths, too, have to be dumped. For example, not eating after a certain time at night to keep the weight off is a mistake, says senior dietitian Teo Soo Lay at the Singapore General Hospital. She says: "What matters is the total amount of calories you consume in a day, not the timing at which you have your meal."

Having noticed that she was plumper after Christmas last year, accounts executive Christine Tan, 37, went on a juice-only diet to expel the calories. She had to stop after two days, she says, as she felt weak and tired and had trouble concentrating at work.

After a diet high in fat, sugar and processed food, some people choose to undergo a juice detox. The reason some like the method is because fruit, vegetables and water are considered "good for you", says Ms Teo, but these should not be considered only for a detox.

She adds: "These diets are usually not sustainable and could be nutritionally deficient in the long term."


For garment wholesaler Ng Puay Leng, 53, a holiday for her group of 14 family members and two helpers in 2011 was a chaotic experience.

The resort in Bali she chose had steep flights of stairs, which were unsuitable for her mother, who is in her 70s and was recovering from a leg injury.

It was difficult to balance this, she says, with energetic teenagers who wanted to sightsee and climb the nearby Mount Batur, an active volcano on the Indonesian island.

The family have been travelling together yearly during the holiday season for the past 20 years. Their favourite vacation was going on a safari tour in South Africa more than 10 years ago, where the family could sit back and enjoy the sights.

"It can be difficult to accommodate everyone's preferences, so my best bet is to book a package or land tour, which solves many problems," says Ms Ng.

Extended family travel during the festive year-end season, particularly those with three generations or more, is big business at travel agencies. At ASA Holidays, for example, family travel comprises about 40 per cent of total business, says company spokesman Eileen Oh. There is also a 20 per cent year-on-year increase for such private group travel, rather than off-the-rack package tours, she says.

Big families favour Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia and China, says Chan Brothers Travel spokesman Jane Chang, as these countries are family-friendly and affordable.

Doing self-drive trips in these countries is also popular, says Mr Rufus Tan, product development director at Quotient Travel Planner.

However, travel in no more than two cars, he cautions. "Any more than that and it will get stressful trying to keep the convoy together, and the pace will slow down significantly," he says.

Cruising is also a popular choice for such extended family vacations as accommodation and food options are close by.

The "perfect" holiday usually starts to lose its lustre when relatives who did not participate in the planning process start to complain during the trip, says Mr Tan. "They may make comments about the itinerary, accommodation and pace, which could erode the morale of the travelling party."

So make sure that everyone is on the same page and, most importantly, get a consensus on the intended budget for the trip, says Ms Oh.

She says: "This is the most important factor as it determines the destination, duration of trip, airline, accommodation and activities to include."

Generally, the farther travellers go, the longer they spend at the destination, says Mr Tan. One good trick is to plan for the group to split for separate activities on long trips. "As you can imagine, the best of friends and the closest of family start to have friction when put together in close proximity for extended periods of time," he adds.

To save money, book an apartment or holiday home for large groups, which has common spaces for bonding but separate bedrooms and bathrooms for private space, he says.

This is what housewife Sandra Chng, 42, is doing for her holiday at the end of the month to Gold Coast in Australia.

She is planning the 10-day trip for 14 family members, aged between two and 75, and has booked a customised package tour with Chan Brothers Travel. The family will stay in holiday apartments and hotels during their trip.

To keep a leisurely pace, Ms Chng is planning just two attractions a day, with activities such as catching crabs, visiting an abalone factory, and visiting the zoo and theme park.

"I think it is important to have a Plan B, to think of what those who want to opt out of an activity can do, on the sidelines," she says.


Visions of hosting the perfect dinner party came crashing down when guests RSVP-ed late to say they could not attend or arrived way ahead of schedule and stayed past midnight, leaving Ms Charlotte Ng to clean up till 3am.

The housewife, 42, who hosted a party for eight guests last December, had initially planned for a party of 15.

However, she sent out invitations two weeks before the party date, so many guests already had prior commitments or RSVP-ed late to say that they could not attend.

Guests arrived up to an hour early and Ms Ng had to hurry to put food on the table, while some hung around till after midnight to chat.

"It turned out to be a minefield of unspoken party-planning rules, even among friends, because there is no knowing how to sidestep these graciously," she says.

For one thing, give guests at least a month's notice for a party during the festive period, as it is typically packed with other social events, says party planner Juliet Abdullah of My Party Rocks.

Event director Prem Lulla of Rave Productions, which organises year-end parties, gets up to a 60 per cent spike in bookings from November. He handles up to 15 parties a month.

To discreetly let guests know what time to leave, set a programme card on the table with time slots for dinner, games and a time attached to a "Good Night" slot, so they would roughly know what time the party winds down, he advises.

A good dinner party should last no more than four hours, he adds. "It is good to end on a high, when everyone is pleasantly buzzed, rather than when everyone is drunk and tired," he says.

Guests have rules to observe too, regardless of how close you are to the host, says Ms Yvonne Anjelina, director of The Etiquette School.

For one thing, it is not bad manners to arrive late - just five to 10 minutes after the stated time so the host has some leeway to attend to last-minute chores.

If the party is in a home, a typical rule of thumb, Ms Anjelina says, is to leave about half an hour after tea or coffee is served.


With no publisher in sight and the year fast ending, Ms Shane Yan decided to sink $10,000 of her own savings to publish her first book.

This was the 28-year-old's resolution for this year, in her search for greater meaning in her life. Her book, which investigates the meaning behind her nocturnal dreams, hopes to help people discover the hidden meanings behind dreams and take stock of their lives.

Getting the book to the publishers by year's end, to be printed by the start of next year, was a way to fulfil a promise to herself to be a published author, says Ms Yan, who also consulted a life coach from home-grown company Executive Coach International to help her reach her goals.

The last-minute scramble to fulfil un-met resolutions typically spikes from November, with about 30 per cent more people asking for help to meet their goals, says Executive Coach International's principal coach Kelvin Lim. The firm sees close to 100 clients a month.

He says: "The end of the year is when people start reflecting on their lives, though these resolutions tend to be long-term ones that they have set year after year but have not fulfilled for some reason."

These are usually career-related goals, though more people are coming with goals that involve striking a work-life balance, he adds.

Dig deep when it comes to setting practical yet meaningful resolutions for the upcoming year, says Mr Lim. For example, a client once came to him with a resolution to get a promotion at work. As he delved more, he found that the client's main objective was to get a raise to take his family for a long holiday.

"Knowing the ultimate objective seeds the work that goes into getting that promotion, because this is what drives people at the deeper level," he explains.

Also, make goals tangible, says trainer Joe Lee, who runs a life-coaching business.

Instead of setting a goal such as having a better relationship with one's family, he says, make more measurable ones such as setting a target of having three meals with the family in a week, or taking a yearly holiday together.


Always turn up for year-end office parties, say experts.

"Bear in mind that when it is a companyorganised event, it is company time," says Mr Josh Goh, assistant director of corporate services at The GMP Group. Whether it is a retreat or casual party, "that time belongs to your employer", he adds.

Another cue: The smaller the shindig, or the more official it is - having a charity auction, clients or a guest of honour present are good indicators - the more an employee is obliged to attend, says Ms Denise Ng, managing consultant of ImagoImage.

Safe topics of conversation to stick to are holidays, the party's ambience or food, and family, particularly when it includes children, she adds.

If you are more familiar with your bosses or colleagues, health is also a good topic, she says.

If you are a drinker, accept the alcohol but arrive knowing your limits and set a cap on the number of drinks you plan to have, says Ms Yvonne Anjelina, director at The Etiquette School. "Stick to this quota even if you are cajoled to have more," she says. Or give an excuse such as: "I appreciate the offer but I'm not feeling well right now and would prefer a glass of juice if this is okay with you." People will usually back off, she says.

The "secret Santa" gift exchange aspect of office parties can also be tricky. It is good for firms to set a limit on the value of the gift to avoid confusion, says Mr Goh. He says vouchers and donations to a charitable organisation of your colleague's choice are safe gifts. Steer clear of personal items such as perfume, toiletries or food, unless you know the receiver's preference well.

Ultimately, the rule is to always remember that you are with bosses and colleagues, says Mr Goh.

"Do not leave your professional image at the door, even if you are out of the office," he says.

And lastly, remember to thank the party organisers, says Ms Eunice Tan, founder of Image Flair Academy Of Modern Etiquette. "Not only is it a nice thing to do, but it also makes you stand out from the other staff."

This "little something" was what copywriter Alex Tay, 29, did during his company's year-end party last year which reaped rewards.

It was a large do with about 60 employees, but he sought out the organisers, whom he had never met, to introduce himself and say thank you. That tiny gesture helped when he needed those colleagues' IT expertise three months later. "It smoothens the way to get things done in the office and, if anything, parties mean you make more friends at work, which is always a good thing."


Buying presents for loved ones can sometimes carry the unbearable weight of expectations.

This was the case for Mr Jeffrey Lee, 40, three years ago when he presented an art-lover friend with a $200 photographic print of Beijing's Forbidden City, only to get a muted response.

Mr Lee, who runs his own Web business, picked the gift as he thought it would appeal aesthetically to his friend, but was mistaken. "From then on, I steer clear of decorative items, particularly for the home as it is a personal space, because my taste might not appeal to someone else," he says.

A good guide is to peg the price of the gift to your degree of closeness with the person, says Ms Joanne Lim, chief image coach at Image Success.

Typically, spend the most on family members, with a minimum of $40. For friends, gifts could be at least $30, and for colleagues, at least $15.

For someone you just started dating, keep the gift formal but add a personal touch, says Ms Eunice Tan, founder of Image Flair Academy Of Modern Etiquette. For example, this could mean a silk scarf for a woman and cufflinks or a tie pin for a man. But add a handwritten note to the gift so there is a personal touch, she says.

Steer clear of gifts that symbolise love, says Ms Denise Ng, managing consultant of ImagoImage. "Don't give anything that symbolises love, like a rose or jewellery bearing love knots, rings and especially a diamond ring," she says.

For children, a good way to combine learning with a gift is to buy gift vouchers from bookstores, says Ms Tan, so they may pick a gift for themselves within a set budget.

And if you want to recycle an unwanted gift, says Ms Ng, always unwrap the old gift to check if there is a personal note written on the gift, a card tucked inside or even the tiniest initials or messages engraved on the gift. Make sure there is no price tag left on the gift, then re-wrap it, she says.


The first thing to do when you bump into an acquaintance at the end of the year is to set the ball rolling and offer up a short "life update", says Ms Eunice Tan, founder of Image Flair Academy Of Modern Etiquette.

"Touch upon three aspects of your life - the recent past, the present and your future plans," she says. Slide in an interesting achievement, such as taking a dream vacation, completing a marathon or making a career switch, then ask for a similar update from the other party, she adds.

If you find yourself at a party with people you barely know, make yourself useful, she says. "Help the host with chores that require you to talk to people, such as mixing drinks, offering appetisers or playing DJ."

For those who are bad at remembering names, the best thing to do is to come clean and ask for the person's name again, says Ms Denise Ng, managing consultant of ImagoImage. The same thing goes, she says, if you accidentally call someone by the wrong name.

This was the embarrassing case for housewife Brenda Ang when she went up to an acquaintance at a party last year, confidently called out his name, only to have him tell her - within earshot of other partygoers - that she got it wrong.

The 38-year-old apologised profusely and later made it a point to ask how the person was faring in his piano lessons when she managed to place him in context.

Ms Ng approves of how Ms Ang rescued the situation: "Soften the discourtesy by mentioning a personal detail about them that you have gleaned from a past tete a tete, which lets them know you have not forgotten about them as a person."

And for those difficult and probing conversations you just want to escape from, here is some help. Offering a handshake, asking for a business card or introducing a new contact signals the end of the conversation, says Ms Yvonne Anjelina, director of The Etiquette School.

If not, say something polite such as "I could monopolise your time but I am sure you would like to meet other people", she suggests. Then walk over to another person or group and strike up a conversation. This avoids a scenario where the former thinks you just want out of the conversation, she says.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 22, 2013

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