Office parties and other social events during the holidays aren't just an ideal opportunity to load up on free food. They can also be excellent opportunities for networking.

But networking during the holidays can be quite different from making contacts during the rest of the year, says career coach Robin Ryan, author of "What to Do with the Rest of Your Life."

Networking at holiday events is more informal because people are primarily there to have fun. Don't expect to land yourself a new job by the end of the year, Ryan says. Keep your advances light and chatty. Ask, "Would it be okay if I called you after the first of the year?"

Some other ideas:

For the currently unemployed, don't let embarrassment about not having a job keep you from attending social events and networking. If people ask you what you do, simply tell them you'll be making a career move in the new year.

— Have at most one or two drinks over the course of an evening. "Alcohol does not make you more social, and it can cost you a job," says Ryan. "People will think of you, 'Great for a party, but not great as an employee.'" New contacts aside, keep in mind that at office parties your bosses will also be watching.

— Remember that you're looking to advance your career, not to derail it. Ladies, "don't pick the lowest cut, sexiest thing you own," advises Ryan. You want to come across as professional, and sex-kitten apparel won't earn you brownie points with anyone. Gentlemen, "don't be a slob." Pick slightly dressier attire than you would normally wear to work.

— Don't spend the entire party tracking down people you already know or people you want to talk with. By excluding or snubbing people, you might miss out on fun — or some unexpected networking connections.