What the Great Social Reentry Can Teach Us About Networking
The wildest thing happened this past weekend.
Wait for it…
As in, I attended some. Plural.
It was my first real weekend of Hot Vax Summer, and my first proper going-out in 18 months. And somewhere amid all that rusty social interaction, I realized something. Well, two things. One: I know a lot of Geminis. Second, and the reason we’re all here: that the only kind of ‘networking’ I ever want to do is going to parties where I can be my damn self and enjoy the people around me. I know, what a concept.
I cannot tell you how long it’s taken me to figure this out.
As is true of basically all adults who sell their time and labor for a living, my livelihood depends on getting people to know who I am and to pay me for my work. In turn, that means getting to know people who may or may not be interested in paying me for my work. Or, at least, getting to know people who may know people who would want to pay me for my work.
I’ve managed to do this competently enough to build what appears to be a career. ‘Networking,’ that is. But the practice is conceptually revolting to me, and I hate it. Scare quotes absolutely necessary.
When I moved to New York City several years ago for a new job, the only people I knew here were other folks who had also recently arrived for new jobs, who’d also lived in the city I was moving from, and who worked in the same industry as I do. This is a pretty common situation to be in, when you’re an adult finding your way in a big new city for work. Nonetheless, the sudden and aggressive blurring of my social and professional lives stressed me the hell out.
The scene I landed in didn’t exactly soothe my anxiety. That first year in the city, I found myself at readings and parties where the ambient clout measuring was palpable. Even when we weren’t talking about work, which we often were, I got the sense that making new friends would mean playing the role of a kind of worker. Specifically, the kind of worker the people around me would want to name drop at their next function. And in those early days, with that particular group of people, my inkling was almost certainly correct. But some of it was just me. I was the new kid, I was insecure, and I hadn’t yet found my people.
In any case, a couple of things happened as a result: I internalized the idea that, in the big city, my basic likability as a person was contingent on my bankability as a worker in my field. And, by extension, that my livelihood depended on learning to suck it up and drag myself to events I dreaded attending, where I’d be friendly with people I wasn’t sure I even liked, and to document each occasion on an assortment of digital platforms. I assumed this was simply the price of admission for a life of creative work. Maybe even for adulthood, period.
The thing is, all relationships are transactional. Work relationships, friend and family relationships, and the ones that defy strict categorization. All of it requires us to exchange bits of ourselves with the people around us: time, validation, gossip, spare hands.
That doesn’t mean that you need to approach your social life like a series of literal business transactions. But it does introduce an element of potential awkwardness into meeting people and having fun, especially when your social network and professional network are kind of the same thing. It’s easy to feel like you need to follow a script, or to power through situations that just aren’t your jam.
Here’s the thing. In both work and non-work life, not everyone is going to be your cup of tea. You won’t be theirs, either. And, honestly? That’s fine! Best to cut your losses and mosey on to the next. Less friction, more reward.
To paraphrase a tweet that I recently saw and liked: be yourself, be kind, do good work, and peace out if it sucks. That’s the secret formula for ‘networking’ — or, in less douchey terms, for finding the people you vibe with, in work and in life.
Which brings me back to last weekend. For the first time in ages, maybe ever, I found myself at a party full of mostly strangers, who mostly worked in the same field as I do, and had an uncomplicated good time. The people I met there were smart and warm, and I liked them. We talked about work, because it was a thing we had in common. But we talked about other things, too. Was it ‘networking’? No, but also, sure. In any case, would repeat.