I’m standing in a room filled with suits and skirts. The styles range from classic professional to business casual to hipster chic with a touch of modern professional, muted tones, slim ties, and all. I idle in the doorway, watching an older gentleman jest amongst a younger man wearing a tweed jacket with clashing elbow patches and a young woman who I suspect is the ambassador for American Apparel: black pencil skirt, red blouse, red flats, and black tights. Nearby, a woman in an emerald green jacket chats with another woman wearing a grey pantsuit. Young, old, reserved, hip; each community represented in the midst. This was NAFSA’s (International Educators) regional conference. I scan another moment before sidling to the bar.
After grabbing a beer, I try to approach a group of people before silently panicking and deciding to casually breeze past them, hoping they hadn’t noticed my attempts at eye contact. After returning to the fringe, I force myself to endure a self-administered pep talk: you know how to talk to people, they’re all in the same situation, just walk up and talk, do the thing, network. Network. The verb clanged through my mind before I mustered the energy to return to the fray.
Networking gets a bad reputation. Granted, walking up to random people with the intention of making business connections and trying to impress strangers with impromptu wit lends an atmosphere of competition. Some revel in its the spontaneity, while others submerge in the sea of suits and skirts. It feels like sink or swim; you’re either one of the two people dominating the conversation among a group of peers, or you’re listening. Or so I’d assumed.
I found myself fluctuating along the spectrum, inserting small jokes here and there and engaging in momentary side conversations, but as the night continued, I found my pace. Despite the eclectic mix of tastes and styles, the prevailing attitude was the same: curiosity. The competitive atmosphere I had been dreading was revealed to be an air of genuine attention and interest.
I realized that contrary to resembling a stacked race where only the most connected won, the entire group had been set on an equal playing field. We weren’t a randomly assorted group of professionals; we were people, looking to make human connections, no matter the attire. That changed everything.
By the end of the night, I realized I’d enjoyed myself, despite my earlier apprehensions. Perhaps my “network” had expanded. Perhaps it hadn’t. In the end, that wasn’t the point.