How (not) to network: Smile, listen, less small talk!

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I’ve just registered for the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, April 24-25, on whose board I serve; if you’re an ambitious writer, it’s well worth the effort and cost to get to Manhattan for it.

I’m looking forward to catching up with dear friends: Greg from Minnesota, Lisa from Maryland and Randy from San Diego, who found me the best researcher to help me with my book. I’ll also meet many new-to-me people.

They’re great places to make a ton of new and incredibly useful contacts, but a conference can make your stomach hurt with social anxiety: all those people you don’t know, some of them terrible blowhards, some at a totally different level professionally, some vampires.

How to sort them all out?

From, a British business-focused website:

  • Question 1: “What do you do?” This is a neutral start. It allows people to talk about their favourite subject: themselves. The pompous types tend to give the game away immediately. They do not tell me what they do: they tell me how important they are by saying that they are a Senior/Executive Vice President or Director at MegaBucks. Interesting people tell me what they actually do. Whatever people actually do, be it cleaning toilets, pawn broking or exploring the Antarctic, they have interesting stories to tell.  The more they talk, the more I learn.
  • Question 2 — For the pompous types who failed Question 1: “So what is it you actually do in that role?” Some people make a miraculous recovery and become interesting again. Many others tell me more about how important they are. They meet important people (name drop), travel (place drop) and have big budgets and, by implication, big d***ks. For these people, I have to resort to the killer question.
  • Question 3: “So do you enjoy your job?” Anyone who has answered question 1 well, will already be exuding enthusiasm and passion for what they do. There is no need to ask them this question. The pompous types have never even thought of this question. They are so focused on being important, that nothing else matters. If question 2 makes them stop and think, question 3 creates total mental meltdown. It is a joy to watch.
  • From The New York Times:

    It may sound counterintuitive, but people who spend more of their day having deep discussions and less time engaging in small talk seem to be happier, said Matthias Mehl, a psychologist at the University of Arizona who published a study on the subject.

    “We found this so interesting, because it could have gone the other way — it could have been, ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ — as long as you surf on the shallow level of life you’re happy, and if you go into the existential depths you’ll be unhappy,” Dr. Mehl said.

    But, he proposed, substantive conversation seemed to hold the key to happiness for two main reasons: both because human beings are driven to find and create meaning in their lives, and because we are social animals who want and need to connect with other people.

    I recently attended an event in Manhattan for writers held by, and met three people I found fun, interesting and potentially helpful future contacts: a fellow memoirist, someone writing a lot for on-line sites and an author with a book whose subject I found fascinating. I was surprised the author didn’t bother to follow up — I offered to write about her here (hello, free publicity!) — but it happens.

    If you do meet someone you enjoy, don’t lose touch. My trick is writing down, right away, when and where I met that person on the business card they give me. I used to wear myself out saying hello to so many people. Now I try to have a few, deeper conversations. I enjoy it much more and come away less exhausted.

    The worst, exemplified in this funny video, also British, (who love to skewer the pompous), from YouTube:

    S/he looks constantly over your shoulder looking for next, better blood supply; can’t be bothered remembering your name; talks only about himself and peels away at the first opportunity to the Much More Important contact across the room. Don’t be that person!

    Do conferences work well for you? Any tips on how to make the best use of our time there?

    9 thoughts on “How (not) to network: Smile, listen, less small talk!

    1. I love the bit from the New York times. Small talk has always been one of my greatest fears, which is why I sometimes come across as aloof at parties or networking events. Living abroad, I get those two magic questions — Where are you from? What do you do? — all day long, and sometimes I get tired of hearing myself answer them. But give me a topic that interests me (music, pilates, the Oscars), and I’ll run with it. Sometimes I wish I were better at small talk, though. It would probably improve those first impressions.

    2. Caitlin Kelly

      Hey, good to hear from you. I so envy where you’re living right now…

      I hatehatehate small talk — but working retail, where I had to talk to strangers all day long, really helped me get over that in my ability (and it’s not my nature, face to face) to be a little more open to just chit-chatting.

      Canadians (like many nationalities) are also not heavily socialized to be REAL FRIENDLY and are suspicious of anyone who is! So I tend to find a person or two wherever I go socially and, rather than flit about madly, I prefer to quickly drill into something they are passionate about and go from there.

      In many countries, it’s considered really boorish to talk about work so I often just ask “What do you do for fun?” Very few people won’t answer it or enjoy answering it.

      1. What do you do for fun?! I love that question. I could do so much with that question. I wish more people would ask. As a journalist, I’ve had to do more than my share of small talk getting celebrity interviews off the ground, and if it’s necessary, I can do it. But if I’m just at a regular party, usually I’ll give it a pass. So many people who I’m friends with now tell me they thought I was so scary when they first met me because of my monosyllabic responses to small talk.

        I’m really surprised how similar Argentines are to Americans when it comes to small talk. If you talk to any BA native, you will no doubt be asked “What do you do for a living?” and “How old are you?” I don’t get the connection, but there you go!

    3. Caitlin Kelly

      Jeremy, I suspect it’s the default question because it pegs people quickly. Women are rarely asked their age as it’s considered rude, thank heaven.

      My secret with celebrities is to talk to them like regular people, being relaxed and not fawning or being scared of them. They seem to enjoy it; one very big TV guy even asked me to give him a call personally when I visit L.A. as he so enjoyed our conversation.

      Knowing something obscure (homework done) about someone famous shows you’ve really dug deeply — which is usually flattering to all but the most unpleasant. I once interviewed a Prime Minister’s wife and she said something and I said “Your mom told me that.”

      She was speechless that I’d dared — at 27, to call her mom let alone that her mom spoke to me.

    4. Sometimes you can’t help that the Much More Important person is across the room and you really need to go speak with him or her.

      Conferences are a freakin’ mess. You have to go with a specific (but flexible) plan, and a specific list of people you need or want to meet to talk about an interview or mutually beneficial exchange of ideas. Then you’re done. Stay and goof off, or leave.

      Let’s say, however, you’re chasing down one of your important people at a happy hour or pre-presentation mixer, and you know he or she is lurking about and you really need to find this person, and then you get grabbed by someone you don’t know who wants to know *all* about you. Well, then, you do, in fact, turn into the person who keeps looking away, totally distracted, getting thrown off your plan.

      You’re going to have to say to that pleasant interloper, “I definitely want to hear about what you’re doing, but at the moment, I’m caught up in some business I must complete. Tell me your name — I’ll find you later. I promise.”

      It’s the best you can do.

    5. Caitlin Kelly

      Scott, I agree.

      My point was not, in general, to be the a-hole who keeps staring over someone’s shoulder the whole time they are talking to you — as some people do — *seeking* someone/anyone So Much More Important. That’s quite different than going, as you do and I have done, with a specific agenda and a limited amount of time in which to complete it. I, too, have gotten waylaid by someone friendly when I’m on a bit of a mission. I have only one day at our ASJA conference and it will be nuts, which is why I’ll be back the next morning mentoring and will also go out for dinner Saturday night just to be social. I love seeing old friends but also hope to make new ones, and will also, I hope meet some new-to-me editors.

    6. privilegeofparenting

      I think we’re thinking along the same lines here, as I’ve an upcoming blog post on this deep thinking and happiness thing.

      As for social networking, my agent wants me to raise my profile, but I’m happier at my laptop and in my consulting room than in big crowds—still, I send greetings out to the world I will not be schmoozing in any time soon.

      I guess I’m learning that I’m just not as ambitious as I once thought. When it comes to “what we do” I think of “The Little Prince” who complains that people only want to know things like how much money you have and how much you weigh and is sad that no one realizes his picture is not a hat but a boa constrictor that swallowed an elephant.

      Still, I’m only forty-nine so I don’t rule out growing up and being ready to go to conferences one day.


    7. Caitlin Kelly

      p.o.p., the whole self-promotion thing is tough for many of us; I began blogging only because my agent told me I had to and I was very lucky to be invited to join T/S at the same time. I was ***extremely*** reluctant to do it but it’s turned out well.

      I don’t love big crowds but, once I am comfortable, am fine one-on-one — every crowd, after all, is made up of individuals. And there are cool, fun people, so the ones who only focus on your income can be ignored or walked away from.

      I would not be an author or sit on the board of ASJA were it not for attending their conferences over the years and learning a lot and meeting people and making friends.

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