Over the last month I’ve had the chance to attend two press events, both of which had some form of ‘networking lunch’ scheduled.
Now, for all I know, you could be some kind of extroverted hyper-socialite who actually means it when you say in interviews: “I want a job where I get to meet all kinds of people...”
(I am trying not to be judgemental, but what in Mark Knopfler’s name is wrong with you?
How can you possibly want to meet all kinds of people? Some kinds of people I can understand warming up to socially:
A Rugby team performs the Haka before their match . Photo: AFP
Quiet people. Well-behaved people. Female people. People who do not want a job in your company. People who do not have critical insight for your CEO. Vegetarian people who forgot to reply to the food preference email, and sit with their Chicken Steak Diane untouched. All perfectly understandable.
But all kinds of people? Social media consultants even? Madness.)
Unfortunately, I am not like that. Over the years I have developed a healthy skepticism of humanity. Show me 15 or more people in one place, and I will show you a seething morass of insecurity, stealthy backstabbing, professional one-upmanship and crass competitiveness.
This is why, I believe, almost every team sport in the world has 12 people or less. Think about it. Cricket and football have 11 people in each team. Basketball has five. Baseball has nine.
And what happens when you increase team size to 15? Boom! Rugby.
Also Read | Sidin Vadukut’s earlier columns
Eleven New Zealanders give you a cricket team that everyone loves to bits. Add four more New Zealanders and you get a bunch of scary men in tight shorts doing a war dance. The founders of our sports knew the threshold of our collective violence very well.
So imagine my chagrin when I recently walked into one ‘networking lunch’ only to meet 30 or 40 guests, mostly journalists. Some of them were walking around with stacks of cards. Nothing chills my spine like a smiling, enthusiastic man in a suit jacket lunging at you with business cards.
This fellow was huge and ran a specialty media website somewhere near Scotland. I accepted his card and made the usual polite noises about the weather and good whisky. Then he just stood there waiting, me quivering under the overhang of his immense chin, for my business card. In a moment of weakness and intimidation, I gave it to him.
Since that day I’ve been inundated with ‘networking emails’. His first email was nice enough: a short introduction and an invitation to collaborate in some ‘mutually beneficial’ way. But since then it has been a relentless torrent of reminders, updates and reprehensive artificial familiarity:
“Hey Jeremy! How are you man! It has been a while. Have you seen our latest updates on the Greek debt crisis?”
Jeremy? Because the brute uses bulk emailing software surely made by the same people who designed those self-service kiosks in airports:
“Welcome to this kiosk of good times. Please choose your destination. Now please enter your 34-digit ticket number. Please choose passenger name. Now please choose your seat. Sorry this airline does not exist due to some small working capital problem, but they are asking the government for help that should not at all be construed as a bail-out. Have a nice day.”
So a month later, when I was invited to yet another ‘networking lunch’, I proceeded with great caution. First of all I left all my business cards at home. Secondly, I resolved to not look open to business card sniping. This would mean identifying some other similarly lonesome, vulnerable human-skeptic and retiring to a quiet corner near the kitchen.
As soon as I walked in, I found one: a South African journalist with the stooped head, collapsed shoulders and fretful eyes indicative of throbbing social awkwardness. He stood there, behind a flower arrangement, sipping furtively from a glass of champagne.
“Hello there! Where are you from?”
(With palpable dread) “South Africa.”
The rest of the evening we were involved in sparkling conversation about cricket, Mandela, Gandhi and our respective booming economies. Several times in between someone pulled him away for ‘networking’. But each time I rescued him from the misery. We even sat next to each other through dinner and carried on our conversation well into dessert.
Later there was much laughter when we realized that both of us had not brought business cards. But we did exchange email addresses, telephone numbers and the URLs of our respective newspapers.
I learnt a valuable lesson that night. There is a trick to lasting through those terrible networking events. Find someone who, like you, only seeks good quality conversation without any of the trappings of desperate corporate networking. And once you do, bond and zone out from the rest of the circus.
Not only will you last through the evening, you may have even found a new friend.
Personally, I can’t wait to start exchanging emails with my new South African friend.
I tried calling him. But his number does not exist. Odd.
Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org