I took a deep breath before I stepped inside the building.
The room was brightly lit when I walked inside. There were small crowds of people around the area, congregating in circles of light conversation and friendly professionalism. Most people had already found their corners, having latched onto the first people they had found that they could talk to for more than 5 minutes at a time. Some were roving around the area, eyeing different circles and trying to find interesting conversations and gaps between people. Some walked around with more purpose, coffee cups in their left hands and their right hands primed for raising and shaking the moment a greeting was needed.
Then there were others like me, who stuck to the back of the main areas. My face was impassive, but on the inside my eyes and ears felt assaulted by the ever present sounds of small talk and people milling about the room, never staying too long in one place as they all smoothly drifted between circles like an orchestrated waltz.
There was a thump at my shoulder. My friend was looking at me, his eyebrow raised. “I’m going to go talk to some people before the speaker arrives,” he said, smirking. “Got to network, right?” Then he was off, sliding between the lines of bodies.
Networking. I sighed and took a deep breath, sucking air through my nose and exhaling in a controlled fashion. I rolled my shoulders, straightened my shirt, and launched myself into the room.
People everywhere. Most were too busy to notice me as I threaded my way through the crowd. Some eyed me, but their eyes quickly averted as they deigned me either too uninteresting or too distant. If only they knew.
Suddenly, before I knew any better, a tall but burly-looking man walked up to me, meeting my eyes and sealing the inevitability of a conversation. I sighed internally and walked up, a casual but confident smile crossing my face as we introduced ourselves. He seemed friendly enough.
“How did you hear about this event?” he asked, gesturing towards the panel table with his Dunkin’ Donut catered coffee cup.
I shrugged. “A friend told me about it. It looked interesting to me, so I decided to check it out.”
The man nodded. The topic drifted from the usual explanation of our surrounding situation and the circumstances of our presence to the inevitable “what do you do”s. At the time, I was working on a video project with a client, so I talked a bit about my videography business and the work I was doing at the moment.
“That’s interesting,” he replied, nodding back. As I began to continue to speak, having stopped momentarily to allow his phrase of confirmation that he had indeed registered my words, he immediately launched into his own piece, without a single wrinkle in the transition. “My business does something similar…” After a moment of recovery and listening, I realized that he was now relaying his “pitch”.
A few minutes later, his words slowed to a crawl. I murmured a couple of encouraging words and his eyes flickered away. Suddenly, it was as if the man’s mind was a couple of feet away, no longer standing in front of me. He quickly shook my hand, handed me his business card, and left with a couple of words about potentially doing business with each other later. Then I stood there, alone and mildly confused. After a moment, I shook my head and went straight towards an open chair. I sat down, looked up at the panel table where the speakers would sit, and simply waited there for the event to begin as conversations swirled around me.
A single phrase bounced back and forth between the walls of my thoughts.
I hate networking.
For the longest time, I’ve hated networking. Oh, it makes sense in principle. Talk to new people, try to find an opportunity of mutual benefit for both parties, and establish rapport. After all, people want things. Sometimes, we want things from each other. In lieu of the ancient art of battling each other to the death, we network and make connections in hopes that we will gain something from one another.
That’s why “networking time” is a hallmark of any big meetup, gathering, and conference, isn’t it? It seems reasonable enough. If I want to meet a particular person for some reason, whether he or she knows some important individual or has access to resources that I desire, I should go and try to make conversation with that person for that reason.
Yet, that sounds a bit shallow, doesn’t it? Does the feeling of making small talk with another person while both parties are trying to determine whether or not the conversation is worth their time bother you? Does the situation of you nodding your head as you listen to someone else talk about something completely uninteresting to you and having to sit through it to “network” with that person seem wrong to you?
For me, yes.
I will admit it. Part of the reason behind my personal despise for networking stems from the fact that I hate shallow relationships, especially shallow interactions.
Is there any wonder why? Personally, I’ve never enjoyed surface-level interactions, the inane words thrown around like hooks tossed towards edges to establish a bridge, a connection between people. For me, it just seems like a waste of time. Wouldn’t it be better if we all were more honest to each other and cut the fluff from our dialogue? This idea extends even beyond networking and into just general conversation. I would much rather talk to someone about subjects we both cared about and found interesting rather than converse with someone while playing the verbal dance we all follow during networking. And, for a moment, forget the idea of trying to talk to someone with a purpose and a goal in mind. Just be spontaneous and personal and don’t focus on “making that connection” with the person. Let’s be real with each other.
Some may argue that what I say doesn’t make sense. Networking is an integral part of our lives. It’s how people advance the socioeconomic ladder and empires are built. In the real world, everyone is a networker, scrambling over other people and leveraging one another in attempt to reach some pre-defined peak. It’s just that some are worse at it than others.
Then others may argue that most people don’t have the time or effort to establish those enduring relationships that go beyond the surface. It’s true that, at its foundation, networking is supposed to eventually lead to these long-lasting relationships. But that’s not often the case. As for my dislike of shallow interactions, I know that some people thrive on networking situations. And further still, some people will simply say that I’m just an oddity, and that everyone else doesn’t have similar thoughts or concerns when it comes to networking.
But there is a problem. I know plenty of people who dislike the act of networking. I know I don’t like it. And, according to a study conducted by Tiziana Casciaro at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School, the majority of people don’t like the dirty feeling of what they define as instrumental networking, the act of creating social ties to support one’s personal or professional goals. Yet that’s the bedrock of professional interactions.
Is there any way to avoid it?
There just might be.
Despite what it may seem like now, I actually like meeting new people. It’s fun learning about people’s stories and experiences and sharing your own in return. No goals, no strings attached. Just friendly, sincere interactions between normal people. And then, the moment you know you’ve made a new friend is one of the best feelings in the world.
So why don’t we just do that instead?
Instead of just trying to make connections, why don’t we just focus on making friendships? If there are professional motivations, then worry about those later after you’ve established a relationship and made it clear you’re not trying to use the person for something. A friendship can be much more powerful than a shallow connection; they’re intrinsically worth so much more. Friendships are genuine bonds, formed between two people who actually enjoy each other’s company and aren’t always trying to actively use each other for personal gain. Anything else is secondary.
That’s what I did this summer. Instead of trying to focus on networking and making those shallow connections, I just tried to make friends. That’s why I didn’t attend as many “meetups” as I thought I would, coming to the “Tech Central” that is San Francisco. That’s why I organized dinners for complete strangers through the Bay Area Interns Slack group and had a great time just eating and talking with cool people. That’s why I avoided trying to “pitch” or sell myself to others and just focused on getting to know other people for the sake of getting to know them.
And I enjoyed every second of it.
Inevitably, people will find holes in this argument. They’ll say that this strange new theory of replacing connections with friendships is just another ploy, a means to an end. Making friends and then using them for whatever one may have in mind. They’ll say that it won’t work, and that most people will always resort to networking to get what they want. Maybe we’ll have to accept that these shallow, surface-level interactions and conversations will always be a part of society.
It’s an idealistic thought, I know, getting rid of networking.
But, somehow, I think we’d be better off that way.
San Francisco, 2016