On the list of my Greatest Fears (a list that ranges all the way from Uncomfortable Underwear to Robot Led Apocalypse) one of the most highly ranked concerns to plague my mind is my Fear of Showing Up at the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time. Its genesis can be found in a teenage incident in which I was dropped off at boarding school a day early. It’s the reason I get cold sweats when arriving at fancy dress gatherings. Every now and then something happens to reinforce my Fear – like the charming HR woman a few years back who instructed me (through several clarifying emails and phone calls) that I was to start my new job on the 1st of January. In her defence, how was she to know that the entire building was shut down on New Year’s Day? She was on holiday after all.
|The other source of my fear of fancy dress gatherings|
In any case I am quite certain that this, my Fear of Showing Up at the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time, is one of the major contributing factors to the unparalleled wave of Awkward I bring along with me when attending any type of Function. Here I use the word ‘Function’ as an umbrella term for those genre-less, mystifyingly dress coded gatherings in which one must make unending small talk with complete strangers while exuding charm, grace and confidence, not to mention managing the Olympian juggling act of sipping, nibbling and having a business card at the ready… all at the same time. Some people call this Networking. I call this Dying Slowly.
Through a series of inexplicable events I found myself at two such gatherings recently. Though I failed (like a movie about a board game involving battleships, which is to say utterly) at the social side of both events, I did pick up some advice on the matter.
And now I feel it is my duty to all similarly awkward individuals (who would rather gnaw off their own hand than ‘work a room’), to share that advice as some sort of emergency kit should they ever get backed into a hall filled with finger food that’s being held by people who smile with ‘good-humoured interest’ while glancing over your shoulder.
Let’s called it The Painefull Guide to Surviving a Networking Situation and Hopefully Only Dying on the Inside. Catchy, huh? Who needs 5 words when you can use 15 (asked no one ever)? Scrap that, let’s just begin by saying this: like Law & Order, there are two schools of thought when it comes to approaching a ‘networking opportunity’, those that wish to blend in, and those that wish to stand out… these are their stories.
TRYING TO BLEND IN
EVENT 1: Let’s call this the McMidney Milm Mestival Launch
Ah yes, the McMidney Milm Mestival Launch… I managed around 10 minutes of gormless smiling while clutching a Launch program (and somehow sweating through said program, applying printers ink to my hands, which I then thoughtfully transferred to my chin half an hour later when I drummed my fingers there while squinting into the middle distance in a failed attempt to appear intelligent and engaged). Then I enacted my sacred right to text a friend.
Am currently trapped at a function where I know NO ONE. Any tips on how to look busy, yet casual, yet totally at ease??
I sent this text to Chesty, an old hand on the networking scene. Chesty replied with a stream of tidbits on how to achieve this.
The Chesty Manifesty on How to Blend In
|The only time I am certain I will be able to blend in is during a zombie apocalypse. I'm still working on robots.|
1. “Do as I do and call your mum.”
This is a classic manoeuvre that everyone has used at least once. The old ‘I’m so important, I’m so connected, my phone is my office, I’m having an animated conversation which surely means I’m awesome’ gambit. Sadly or me at the Mestival Launch, when I called Mother Painefull she was two short sashays away from having coffee with one of the Carols (my mother knows a lot of Carols – I think it’s a generational thing, because all the Carols I know are her Carols).
2. “Go over to drinks/food/juice table at same time as someone, give big smile to anyone else approaching and then make lame joke about wishing it was late enough to drink or similar, use that to start convo ‘what brings you here?’.”
As it turns out the Mestival Launch crowd was not the group for me to test out comedy bits. At all. They were quite serious about their tea.
3. “Ask someone near the bathroom where the bathroom is. Go in and wait a few minutes then go out and as you pass them say thanks and then sort of stay nearby and start convo.”
Unfortunately when I did this I was at the end of my networking tether, and thus I looked frantic and sweaty – then I went into a stall and stood, pondering whether they thought my frantic, sweaty appearance might mean something. Then I realised I had been pondering this scenario for 10 minutes and wondered what they thought my 10 minute bathroom visit was for – this became 20 minutes due to excess pondering. I then had no choice but to race out of the bathroom avoiding all eye contact with those nearby in case they recognised me from my previous faux bathroom questing interlude.
TRYING TO STAND OUT
EVENT 2: The Pinscription Polarship Pannouncement
Everyone loves a Pannouncement, am I right? No. I’m lying. If you nodded you’re lying (but you’re also physically reacting to something written by me, so you’re not all bad). If you’re in any way associated with said Pannouncement, if your name is say… on a short list, that intrinsically means there is a medium to high chance that someone there will try to engage you in conversation about yourself. If you are inherently awkward, as I am, this is disastrous. You will make awful quips, you will become clammy-handed, you will be tempted to get drunk. Lucky for me, at this Pannouncement, Mother Painefull was on hand to show how it’s really done.
The Mother Painefull Broadway Show-stopper On How to Stand Out
|That's not a coat, this... is a coat|
1. Wear a loud jacket, it’s always a good talking point
Mother Painefull could have been spotted in a pitch black room, so brightly hued was her coat. I didn’t get the memo. I wore black. I was practically a waitress. In mourning. Who was about to head to her next gig as a stagehand at a high school production of Fiddler On the Roof (which, FYI, is a challenging role, and not a ‘sympathy gig’ your drama teacher gives you upon discovering 20 seconds into your audition that you cannot sing to save yourself).
2. Conclude a bonding session with a relative stranger by declaring her your new daughter (in front of one of your current daughters)
Thus a new talking point is raised for all involved. Don’t take this talking point and spin it into an elaborate joke about playing Sibling Survivor and kicking people out of the family. Not everyone can tell when you’re joking. Which might have been the problem at the Mestival now that I think about it.
3. Upon the announcement of someone else winning the prize, ask them if they will take you. Then tell everyone loudly that your daughter (the old one, not the new one) in fact came second – several people will assume that this means there is in fact a second place and she is talking with authority. Then line up the winner for a photo between the old daughter and some other shortlisted entrant and loudly talk about getting a photo of the podium finish (telling the other shortlisted entrant he came 3rd – he looks intrigued by this)
To be honest, this one’s hard to replicate when your mother is already doing it. But I will say, Operation Stand Out… big success.
If the above two approaches to Networking completely fail, if you feel like a fraud, if you need something to make you feel better… I would suggest, why not find someone more awkward, stand near them, and let that comparison play to your strengths?
For me, at the Pannouncement , that relief arrived when I overheard one Nervous Entrant in conversation with Father Painefull.
FATHER PAINEFULL: The hosts said to make ourselves at home…
NERVOUS ENTRANT: Yeah, they’ll never be able to kick us out…
FP: Yes, I was thinking of checking out the bedroom…
NE: I know! I said to my girlfriend – what if we went and had sex in their bedroom?!
Now imagine giant screeching cicadas. Father Painefull looked mystified and discomforted in equal measure. I know my father well enough to know he was joking about going upstairs for a nap (Father Painefull love a nap), and that randomly discussing sex under any circumstances at a social gathering is as off-putting to him as the idea of the two of us settling in to watch an episode of Game of Thrones together would be for me.
At that point I relaxed a touch. In fact I sighed with relief that I was not the most awkward person in that moment. Of course I was relieved - I didn’t yet know I was going to have to call Mother Painefull the next day to instruct her to please stop telling people that I came second, because those people have begun to ring me to congratulate me, and they seem to think I have won some sort of runner’s up prize.
This is of course impossible because at the Pannouncement, just as it is in life and Networking, there is no second place whatsoever, just people looking at you with concern, wondering why your eye is twitching.