06/25/2012 12:23 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2012

A College Girl's Guide to Navigating Office Happy Hour

Here's the scene: It's your first serious internship. You've purchased the perfect flattering-yet-classy suit and cute-yet-comfortable heels. You're trendy, you're professional, you've got a colored pen for every situation, and you're ready to tackle that first rung on the corporate ladder. But there's trouble ahead -- a situation that, despite all your schooling, you're completely unprepared for: the office happy hour. In college, a tasteful night of drinking might include buying a $13.50 bottle of Smirnoff instead of a $7 bottle of Bartons. But shots of tequila -- no matter how expensive -- aren't going to cut it at the office. We talked to Diane Gottsman, a nationally recognized etiquette expert, about the dos and don'ts of office happy hours. Here are her tips, organized into three easy steps for collegiettes hoping to become the most fun girl at the office as well as the first one the boss turns to when the going gets tough.

Step 1: Prepare Yourself!

The first thing to think about is whether you want to attend an office happy hour at all. If none of your fellow interns are going, showing up might prove a little uncomfortable, especially if you're not the most outgoing of gals. But consider it anyway -- social opportunities like happy hours provide you ample opportunities to network within the office. They already know you're a competent worker -- show them you're a competent socializer, too.

Step 2: Arriving -- To Drink or Not to Drink?

However, once you get to happy hour, things get a little tricky. The number one rule, Gottsman says, is that if you're an intern, you shouldn't be drinking. You could be 21, 19, or 45 -- Gottsman thinks the "overall rule is no." Let's face the facts: as interns, we're rarely paid; instead, we're often working for college credit. That means that your office is your school away from school. "You would never drink with your professors," says Gottsman. "So you shouldn't drink with your boss."

If you do decide to take a risk and drink, the most important non-negotiable is that you shouldn't drink if you're underage. When we're at school, the line is a little blurred -- frat guys probably won't ask you your birthday before handing you a beer. The difference is this: if you get caught drinking underage on campus, you'll probably get in trouble with your university's police. If it's your first offense, and you promise to be good, they might forgive and forget. But if TV has taught us anything, it's that real-world cops are a little different. And not only are you putting yourself in legal danger -- you're putting your company in danger as well. A happy hour that ends with your boss in handcuffs may not be so happy anymore. Gottsman puts it very succinctly: "If you're not of drinking age, the answer is no."

But wait -- what if you are of age to drink? What then? At this juncture, it's probably helpful to review why offices hold happy hours anyway. Your boss isn't providing you with free alcohol for kicks. No, there's a definite method to this madness. Happy hour is about building relationships with your colleagues. So take advantage of that: instead of slugging back drinks, turn to that quiet guy who works in the cubicle next to you and ask him what he likes to do for fun. Maybe next time he needs an intern to contact a client, he'll look to you first. And during happy hour, the boss always has her eye on you. "I wouldn't call it a test," Gottsman says. "But don't think your boss isn't watching you from a professional standpoint." Often, job offers are made and broken based on your rapport with clients. If you're a good socializer --good at making small talk over dinner, or even drinks -- you'll probably be great with clients. So while you shouldn't spend your inter-office social time constantly looking over your shoulder, you should be aware that happy hour does show the boss another side of you -- a side you probably want her to like.

So you can drink, and you understand the significance of happy hour. But that doesn't mean you actually have to drink at all. If you want to hold something in your hand, order a virgin beverage. Gottsman recommends ordering a lime with soda and keeping it with you all night long. And don't be embarrassed about not drinking. Apologizing "loses you power and credibility," she says.

If you do want to drink, know your limits. "If you know that you can only drink a thimbleful of wine before you get lightheaded, then don't get a glass of wine," Gottsman says. Sangria might be a better option -- it's diluted, so while there's alcohol in there, there's not that much. If you want something with a kick, it's smart to nurse one throughout the night, rather than downing two or three. "I don't mean to sound like a commercial here, but drink responsibly," Gottsman cautions.

Read the rest of the article, including how to socialize with co-workers and what to do if someone gets a little too flirty, at!