I just spent two hours at an alumni event hosted by my law school, to see an old professor and partly to network.
It should not come as a surprise that I hate traditional “networking,” particularly in the context of social events. I am okay with talking to people one-on-one, but mixer-type events are sensorily overwhelming and most people’s approach to these events appears to be to scan the crowd, identify people to approach, and engage in short conversations with person after person, all while juggling both a drink and hors d’oeuvres and simultaneously scanning the crowd for people to approach next. Not a particularly disability-friendly environment.
All the same, it’s extremely difficult to advance a legal career without attending and navigating these kinds of events. Even if you’re not trying to meet people, you can be sent to events like this just to provide a token presence for your organization. So I’d like to be good at it, to the extent that I can be.
There are a lot of books on networking, but there aren’t very many books on how to network if you’ve got a psychosocial or communication disability (including anxiety, Autism, whatever) or even if you’re just an introvert (and don’t even get me started on how inaccessible these things are to wheelchair users!). It’s not that I don’t understand the advice that mainstream books are offering, it’s that they tend to offer strategies that play to strengths that I don’t have, and don’t offer ways to use strengths that I do have. It’s like a human reading a book on swimming that’s aimed at seals – we can do it, we just can’t do it the way that seals do!
In case anyone’s interested, here are a few of my strategies. Some elements are pretty common strategies for these things, but others are sort of idiosyncratic:
- Psych self up beforehand. Mentally rehearse what I will do upon arriving at the event, ways I’ll cope with anticipated issues, people I want to say hi to, things I’ll try to talk to them about.
- Unless I end up in a conversation immediately upon entering, I go more or less straight for the food and drinks. Having a goal in mind helps me to deal with the sudden sensory overload. Here is where it’s important to have already scanned the room beforehand, because while traveling to the food and drinks you still have to be able to keep head up in case people are trying to get your attention. I do stop and talk to people if they say hi while I’m on my way to the hors d’oeuvres, but once conversation slows down I just mention I’m on my way to get the food and excuse myself, giving them an opportunity to either come with me or not.
- #2 is particularly helpful because my favorite time to start conversations is in the food and drink lines. I’m dealing with a more limited number of people and there’s a more limited set of places they can be, constant eye contact is not expected, and the process of getting food can serve as a conversation starter (“What are these? Oh, those look good! Did you like those? I’ll have to try some. What’s your name? Where do you work?”).
- Once I get my food and drinks, I like to find a table to sit at (or stand at, if it’s one of those places with standing-height tables). This is not what most people do – they usually like to stand and mingle. But I’m at my best while sitting. Sitting allows me to stop juggling my food and drinks and somehow makes it easier to deal with the noise, making it easier to hear and attend to what people are saying. It does usually mean that I will not end up talking to as many people, but the quality of the conversations will be much better, so it is all overall worth it.
- When locating a place to sit, the ideal table is one with a few people I know and a few people I don’t know. Two to five people is best for me – it’s manageable, but ensures that there is already a conversation going when I sit down and that I can move on to talking to Person #2 when your conversation with Person #1 dies down.
- I talk shop. I’m sure this may not be the best way to reach some people, but fortunately, there are a whole lot of people out there who will be way more impressed by someone who talks shop intelligently than people who make scintillating small talk. Once you’ve established that you’ve met some minimum threshold requirement of pleasantness, extra pleasantness is no longer particularly important, so focus the rest of your energy on appearing intelligent. Talking shop doesn’t necessarily mean droning on and on about what you do; it can (and should!) also mean asking intelligent questions about what the other person does and showing real interest in their response. In fact, I try to talk to people more about what they do than what I do, unless they seem extra interested in my work for some reason. I’ve really hit it off with some people at networking events this way!
- Dressing well, with only one or two “interesting” accessories, actually helps a great deal (obviously this advice is a bit gendered, but I imagine that it translates to the men to some extent as well). I actually think this step is more important for people with social issues than it is for people without social issues. Although knowing exactly how to dress for a given event can be difficult for a lot of Autistic people, but I’ve pretty much gotten the hang of how to dress for these things (thanks, Corporette!), and it’s the most effective thing that I can do in advance to make things go more easily for me once I get there. My perceived social skills are about 150% better when I actually bother with jewelry, makeup, and a well-put-together ensemble (with real attention to both detail and gestalt effects, like choosing earrings to match one of the colors in the outfit) as opposed to just something acceptable (“some suit or skirt plus some shirt that kinda goes with it”). People smile more and are more friendly, making it easier to keep a conversation going and alleviating anxiety; even when I have a semi-visible tic, they actually seem less likely to notice if I otherwise look very professional. Plus, having one or two interesting accessories can help start conversations (but having too many appears to start more conversations about you than with you).
- Despite #7, I avoid clothing that is uncomfortable or shoes that are hard to balance on if it will interfere with my ability to talk to people effectively. I never wear things that are itchy or uncomfortable no matter how good they look, because they will be distracting and make me shift around awkwardly. I often err on the side of nice flats or chunky, low heels because the advantage of wearing stiletto heels (which are the norm, apparently) is completely outweighed by the potential embarrassment of falling down. People respect women who dress practically; nobody actually seems to notice or cares that I’m not wearing heels, and if they do notice they tend to assume that I have a good reason (such as a medical issue that prevents me from wearing heels) and consider me sensible for prioritizing health over fashion.
- I force myself to follow up and email people whose contact information I got, just to say that I was happy to meet them and hope to see them again sometime. This can be hard, but it’s important to people. It lets them know that “let’s keep in touch” was not just something you said to be polite as you left the conversation.
What do you do? Have you read any books on this that are helpful? I think it would be great to compile a resource on networking and other professional tips for those of us who have a hard time with this sort of thing. Not the sort of tips that explain in great detail what the “rules” are (although that can be valuable to people as well, I can usually figure out the rules by reading mainstream materials on the topic), but actual ways to compensate for weaknesses and play up strengths.