I hate the way we have cynically reduced the naturally sociable instincts of human beings (we evolved as herd animals, after all) to a bloodless skill or – worse – a KPI. I have never in my life “networked”, but I will happily have a chat with just about anyone. Which brings me to another thing I dislike about formal networking: the tendency for it to be about seeking a connection with those who are important.
I was brought up to be courteous and respectful to everyone regardless of who they were. It used to be considered the height of bad manners to only half-listen to the person you’re with, while scanning the room for more valuable contacts. But no more. What was once derided as social climbing now seems to be considered as good business practice.
I do admire people who can confidently work a room. My husband is highly skilled at this and can make conversation brilliantly with complete strangers. I am better at it than I used to be – thanks to watching him – but I am much more comfortable making serious conversation than inoffensive small talk.
The downside of the charm that accompanies successful networking is that it can easily become confused with real friendship. Anyone who has ever fallen from a position of power and influence will be able to relate tales of the people they thought were friends who suddenly disappeared from their life. There is nothing like misfortune to sort your genuine friends from those my mother would have called “the fair-weather ones”.
The other problem with modern-day networking is when it is done self-consciously, it rather defeats the purpose. After all, if two people meet at a conference or a “networking” event, and both are concentrating more on the impression they’re making rather than learning about the other person, then no connection has taken place. It looks like networking, it sounds like networking, but it’s actually navel gazing.
I have never in my life “networked”, but I will happily have a chat with just about anyone.
There are two ways to approach this modern-day phenomenon. The first is to just honestly network to your own advantage like crazy. Make no bones about it and just cheerfully fling your smile, charm, potted CV and business card at as many people you think might be of use to you. Be brazen, be bold and be unashamed. You are not meeting these people to make friends. You are there to make business contacts. I have no quarrel with this approach, particularly if it is accompanied by wry self-awareness and humour.
The other approach is to refuse to do it at all. Just turn up and talk to whoever is nearby and set yourself the task of finding out about them. Many years ago, my husband was invited to the wedding of a work colleague. I was the plus one. The wedding was held in the country and I knew no-one there. We drove to the venue (some five hours away) the night before and my husband woke up with a virulent tummy bug. As a result I had to attend the reception alone.
I found myself on a table seated between two cotton farmers. I knew nothing about cotton farming but (in desperation) I set myself the task of finding out about it. The cotton farmers were – as most people are – only too happy to talk about their work and I ended up quite enjoying myself. Has my improved knowledge of cotton farming come in handy? Not really, but my realisation that getting people to talk about what they are interested in can smooth many an awkward social situation certainly has.
As I travel around meeting all sorts of people from all sorts of sectors, thanks to that wedding I am not as nervous as I used to be. But don’t try to tell me I am networking. I am getting to know people for no reason at all except they are there and so am I.
Jane Caro runs her own communications consultancy. She worked in the advertising industry for 30 years and is now an author, journalist, lecturer and media commentator.