12 May 2006

On excusing oneself

This may well be one of those fatuous late-night "insights" which seem profound at 2.03 am but prove to be merely banal in the morning, but;

I have attended several conferences recently. It is a commonplace observation that conferences are as much about "networking" as about the substantive content of the sessions. "Networking" means, I think, making face-to-face contact with people who may be useful in developing one's ideas or promoting one's projects. That sounds exploitative, and in a sense it is; but if everyone knows the nature of the game, and has a mutual interest, the process is more accurately described as "symbiotic".

I am not good at it. I don't really want to be good at it. I prefer to meet people on the basis of being interested in each other, or at least in each others' ideas, for their own sake. Still, it is a fact of life, so it worth reflecting on.

The other day, at a day conference, I psyched myself up to approach several people I had never met before, to make myself known. I admit that I did so mainly for "networking" reasons. After all, I am now self-employed, so I have to make my "brand" known.

I have never attended any training on doing this (thank goodness), but I can imagine that if I were to do so, it would concentrate on how to introduce oneself (and cite much spurious research on the importance of first impressions).

But would it say anything about how to excuse oneself and get away?

There are several options, of course. Most famously, Mr Polly in H G Wells' novel, used to mutter, "Little dog!" and scurry off leaving the other person bewildered.

  • The most obvious option is to let the other person break it off; but that may well mean that you have outstayed your welcome.
  • You can always pretend to have spotted someone else you must talk to, across the crowded room; but that sends a message about the person you are currently talking to being less important than your next 'prospect'.
  • You can of course acknowledge that the other people are busy, and say, "Well, I must let you get on..."; that's fine when there is more than one of them, but a bit phoney when you are going to leave them standing alone...
Some months ago, a friend and I were at a reception attended by a cabinet minister. Whatever my view of his politics and performance (I generally steer clear of such issues on this blog, but I confess he and his preceding lecture did impress me), I was really struck by his ability to "work the room". He spent several minutes with us, doing a good job of appearing to be interested in our work (which he almost certainly wasn't, of course, but I'm not going to accuse him of hypocrisy; I would rather that he feign interest rather than be dismissive), and then moved on. Sadly, I did not have the opportunity to observe his "moving on" technique; a Nigerian post-grad was brought into the conversation and he took the opportunity to bend the minister's ear about corruption in Nigeria, so we were simply isolated and drifted away.

Perhaps, if you are the focus of attention, that is the optimum strategy; let your previous interlocutors feel important and interesting, but be dragged away by prior obligations. But if you are not that important? And you just don't want to stand there mouthing inanities until you are dismissed or ignored?

(After all, the essence of "networking", I gather, is never to out-stay one's welcome. The scale of reception ranges from enthusiastic embrace through polite reception to [equally polite] rejection. One never wants to get a "rejection" on one's record...)

Frankly, I'm neither good at managing this nor interested at getting better at it. But it is an interesting cultural issue...


  1. Networking is something I hate doing, so I don't. It's really refreshing to read in your blog that you too don't like doing it.

    How to leave the group you're talking to? 'You must excuse me, I said I'd meet a colleague at 3pm outside' (hope that they don't ask which colleague, or follow you outside and wait with you); or 'What you have said is so profound that I'm going to have to go and lie down'; or 'I need to get another drink. Before I dash off, can I take your email address' (and you ask for this whether or not you want it).

  2. Can't do it, and clearly nor can anyone at any of these things so I'm always to be found having my lunch on my own. It's either that or try to balance a plate in one hand, a glass in the other, and try to eat at the same time!

    (There's also the uncomfortable thing of having to look at name badges which makes you seem a little perverted when talking to women.)

    But social capital is important and there's a link between 'advancement' (I won't say 'success') and the ability to work the room.

    In my subject, art, design and media (you may know us as 'Mickey Mouse') the ability to smooch is a genuine skill for our students to use in their careers, but it never gets taught and I think it should - just confidence building, the ability to make conversation and so on. Just small tips like the ones you mention (walking in to a crowded room, don't hover at the door, sail straight in and head for a spot so people think you know someone - I've seen it done and it's very impressive!)

    One course I'm external examiner for introduces fine art students to the concept of the 'private view', the few hours when work is sold, reputations are made and so on. They're given help in handling a stressful situation and I think it works quite well.


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