The concept of ‘networking’ events

dancing, people and relationships, personal, society

This past Friday evening, I attended an event associated with the well-respected and impressive ‘business networking’ organization called Ryze (here’s my Ryze profile, for those curious šŸ™‚

I consider myself to be a reasonably friendly and extroverted guy, and certainly one who enjoys talking with, learning from, and getting to know others.

But the concept of networking for networking’s sake is still both alien and uncomfortable to me, and this event was no different.

It reminded me of both a social networking event and a separate ‘speed-dating’ event I attended a few years ago. In both cases, the goal was to get a (hopefully diverse but not TOO diverse) group of people to mix, mingle, and — ultimately hook up with as friends or more.

But the vibe I got from these events was one of awkwardness and moderate superficiality. The people were reasonably interesting and genial and certainly far from unattractive desperados. However, the very fact that everyone was there for the sole purpose of meeting others in a, well, artificial environment struck me as both amusing and vaguely disconcerting.

After all, from a logical standpoint, what was the desired or appropriate modus operandi at these sort of things? I mean, I’ll be blunt: as a straight guy, my eyes tended to gravitate towards two types of people:
– Sexy women
– Tall guys blocking both my view of the these women and my ability to physically place myself in their proximity

And then, of course, I felt palpably guilty. This wasn’t supposed to be a meat market, I scolded myself! And besides, wasn’t it all a bit transparent anyway? The svelte and smiling women had to know that their networking groupies — blessed with the free will to blindly greet any of the other hundreds of participants there — were not selecting them based upon some startling prescience of their deep souls or native intelligence!

Plus there’s always the issue of courtesy vs. selfishness. How DOES one gracefully yet effectively extricate himself from a conversation whose, uh, time has come? Even the blunt yet cheerfully polite, “Thanks! I’m gonna mingle now and chat with other folks” seems at least somewhat offensive, with its implication of “I’m sorry, you just weren’t interesting enough for me.”

I think I’ve become brainwashed by hobby-groups for too long. In swing dancing, for instance, we all have something in common (a love of music and dancing), and we happily have 3-5 minute friendships/love-affairs with handy boundaries. If we’re really gelling, we ask each other for another dance or we chit-chat off the dance floor for a bit. If not (or when we get bored with the other person), we go off to dance with others, no hard feelings. Folks that want to enjoy each others’ company outside of the events join each other for snacks before or after dances, and perhaps initially get to know each other on message forums online. Excepting some inevitable drama, the Lindy world — once one becomes familiar with its intricacies — can be a reassuringly routine and effective way to meet people and make friends.

In contrast, with this Ryze networking event the other night, I walked into a room with over 100 people, and immediately thought two things:
1) Uh, what do I do now?
2) Oh shit. No music, no dancing, no familiar faces… this is supposed to be fun?

Luckily my friend Mike — who is a genuinely good soul AND a comfortably talented networker — showed up a few minutes later and introduced me to a few folks he knew. And indeed, though I shouldn’t have been surprised, his friends were certainly worth chatting with and getting to know.

I suppose that’s the answer. Have an in. Avoid going into a networking event blind without, well, an ‘in’ to at least a piece of the network. Let the trailblazers forge in first, and pray that you’re friends with one of the trailblazers.

But at the same time, I can’t say that I really enjoyed the standing-and-mingling concept all that much. I wasn’t comfortable with it in college (I avoided frat parties like the plague), and I guess some things never change.

Give me birthday parties, dinner parties, cast parties, bowling outings, hikes, etc. Sure, part of the purpose AND fun is still getting to know other people, but at least there’s the intrinsic enjoyment in the underlying issues or events themselves (food, games, outdoors, etc.)

Perhaps this is also why I love dance events so much. When I’m feeling very social, I can be chatty and flirty and loungy and goofy and whatnot. When I’m feeling pensive or more reserved, I can retreat into the music, either watching or low-key’edly dancing, smiling and being present without having to really ‘put myself out there.’

Maybe I’m more of an introvert than I thought after all.

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